Making sure a baby is well-fed can be an extremely daunting challenge for parents, and companies that make baby formula are very much aware of this. Parents are vulnerable during this period, as they naturally want to offer their child the very best that’s available. So many parents opt for the formulas that seem the best — but the products that seem best are not always the best.
According to a new study published in the British Medical Journal, many marketing claims on baby formula products are not backed by high-quality scientific studies — or not backed by studies at all.
The researchers examined 757 infant formula products from 15 countries (Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States). The vast majority of these products (608) had at least one health claim, and on average, there were two claims per product. Common claims include benefits to immunity, growth, and brain development.
Out of the 608 products that made health claims, just 161 (26%) provided a scientific reference to support the claim. In other words, around 3/4 products (74%) provide no scientific reference for their health claims.
But it gets even worse.
Even among the provided references, just 56% were clinical trials. The rest were reviews, opinion pieces, or research such as animal studies. Furthermore, 90% of the clinical trial claims carried a high risk of bias.
The study authors agree that there are some uncertainties and limitations regarding their study, but they say the results are clear enough to warrant stricter marketing regulations. Essentially, baby formula products make claims without any reliable proof, and this shouldn’t be allowed.
“These findings support calls for a revised regulatory framework for breast milk substitutes to better protect consumers and avoid the harms associated with aggressive marketing of such products,” the authors note in the study.
A predatory industry
Reactions to the study were pretty heated, but ultimately, it’s governments that have to decide whether something like this is acceptable or not. In a linked editorial, Nigel Rollins at the World Health Organization says authorities should step in to protect infants and parents from commercial interests.
“Regulatory authorities must therefore decide whether the use of such apparently misleading evidence is acceptable or hold the formula industry to higher standards, require better products based on high quality evidence, and review standards,” he writes.
“On the basis of this study, governments and regulatory authorities must commit the necessary time and attention to review the claims of formula milk products and the evidence provided and thereby protect infants and parents from commercial interests,” he concludes.
It’s not the first time the formula industry has taken heat this year. In a three-paper series published in The Lancet, another leading medical journal, researchers described the predatory approaches of the formula industry, and how they misportray child behaviors to encourage formula consumption, even when this is not necessary. That series also criticized the lack of evidence provided by manufacturers.
“Manufacturers claim their products can alleviate discomfort or improve night-time sleep, and also infer that formula can enhance brain development and improve intelligence—all of which are unsubstantiated. Infant feeding is further commodified by cross-promotion of infant, follow-on, toddler, and growing-up milks using the same branding and numbered progression, which aims to build brand loyalty and is a blatant attempt to circumvent legislation that prohibits advertising of infant formula.”
It’s important to keep in mind that some women are unable to breastfeed, or would prefer not to. They should be able to make decisions about infant feeding based on reliable, accurate information, and not based on predatory marketing practices.
“All information that families receive on infant feeding must be accurate and independent of industry influence to ensure informed decision making. Marketing by the commercial milk formula industry is an interconnected, multifaceted, powerful system that knowingly exploits parents’ aspirations,” The Lancet editorial concludes.