New Report: Most Infant Formula Claims Not Based on Science; Mostly Marketing Research

12/13/2017 10:14 am ET Updated Dec 14, 2017

Infant formula makes a lot of claims, including having formulations that can reduce colic or improve sleep, but a new report shows that many of these claims are based on marketing preferences not actual scientific research. In fact, the investigation of 400 breastmilk substitute products in 14 countries, found that most product differentiation was merely a way to raise prices and boost profits.

Surprise. Surprise.

“Breastmilk substitute companies such as Nestlé have long been exposed for unethical marketing of their products, especially in developing world. What has received less public scrutiny are their scientific credentials. These companies claim that nutritional science drives the development of their products and that the health of their customers is their main priority. Our report reveals that this is not the case - product ranges are based on market research into consumer preferences in different countries and driven by profits,” said Nusa Urbancic from Changing Markets.

I’m reminded of what Marion Nestle, the nutrition professor and author of Food Politics said in my book, “Soda companies, infant formula makers—all of these are not social service agencies. They are businesses whose primary job is to produce dividends for investors. Once that is understood, corporate marketing becomes understandable.”

Understandable yes, but also incredibly unethical when companies are misleading parents with false claims and lying about the scientific integrity of those claims.

The report, called Milking It—How Milk Formula Companies Are Putting Profits Before Science concluded that the increasing product differentiation among infant formula is not science-based at all, but companies actually use very sophisticated market research and social media to primarily gauge consumer affordability and willingness as the key determinant of additional ingredients and nutritional claims. The investigative report by The Changing Markets Foundation, Globalization Monitor, SumOfUs and the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) calls for a comprehensive overhaul of infant formula products and their regulation so that only claims based on unequivocal scientific advice are used.

The research is the first-of-its kind report to investigate the differences between breast milk substitute products produced by the world’s four largest manufacturers: Nestle, Danone, Mead Johnson Nutrition (maker of Enfamil) and Abbott (maker of Similac). The study found that instead of research,

That means if a company determines through its market research, that for example, customers in a certain region will pay a higher price for a formula that claims to, limit colic or soften stools, for example, then they will create that even though the nutritional quality is not much different than their base product. (The report found the U.S. has the third most expensive formula). Meanwhile, the investigation found that while the companies often claim these benefits are based on “the best nutritional science available”, but that was rarely the case.

In my own book research on infant formula companies, I listened to hours of infant formula company CEOs talking to Wall Street analysts about their business and they were pretty outspoken on all their strategies to increase profits and pretty mute on actual nutrition. In one 2016 presentation at a Deutsche Bank, Kasper Jakobsen, the president and CEO of Mead Johnson before it was sold to Reckitt Benckiser in 2017, said, “This idea about how do you go about disrupting yourself is increasingly becoming important for companies in the consumer products industry, no matter whether you sell infant formula or you sell beer.” Huh??

I would like to think the approaches to “disruption” should actually be very, very different. (see Chapter 2 of The Big Letdown for more details on the push for profits over public health)

Meanwhile, consumers mistakenly believe that infant formula is a highly controlled product, when it is not. Although the nutritional composition of infant formula is set by legislation or the Codex, controls on its nutritional quality are largely dependent on industry self-regulation. Particularly in the U.S. This is the same industry that has been repeatedly exposed and/or boycotted for violating international codes on marketing, and we must rely on these to self regulate?

In a nutshell, we’re screwed. In the U.S., the FDA does not approve infant formulas and has allowed them to be classified as a food not a drug, which means it has to meet the very low standard of G.R.A.S. (Generallly Regarded As Safe). There is no test for nutritional adequacy, only a requirement to comply with a list of required ingredients, such as protein, B12 and vitamin D.

That essentially turns innocent infants and unknowing parents into the greatest test pool on critical food for developing infants that has only been minimally tested. Our wonderful government also does not require infant formula makers to disclose sugar content. And the U.S. still allows the dangerous sucrose —the sugar most linked to obesity—even though it is banned from most European markets.

What real nutritional science tells us is that our earliest food exposures prime us for a lifetime of taste preferences, such as craving sugar and salt. That makes the sugar content of infant formula very important—but we don’t have that detailed information.

Pet owners have more information about the ingredients is dog food than parents have about infant formula composition. Someone please explain that.

Even worse, for most infants whose mothers can’t breastfeed or face too many structural or cultural barriers, infant formula is the sole source of their infant nutrition. That is all they will consume, six to eight times a day. Therefore, it would seem that there would be more regulation of infant formula instead of less. It would seem the companies would take more care to ensure the scientific soundness of all nutritional claims.

But alas, that is not the case.

It is no wonder the Milking It report concludes with calling for an overhaul of the existing formula range to ensure it is informed only by the best available science and for authorities to remove any unjustified health claims from products. Finally, governments should introduce and enforce national legislation that fully implements the WHO Code and WHA resolutions.” You can also sign a petition against Nestle here.

An important call to action.

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