Don’t believe the label: No science behind bulk of baby formula claims
Providing an infant with correct nutrition reduces morbidity and mortality rates, reduces chronic disease risk and promotes mental and physical development. But, according to a recent international study, many of the health and nutrition claims made on infant formula products are not backed up by science.
Human breast milk is known to be the best option when it comes to providing infant nutrition. But some women cannot or should not breastfeed for medical or social reasons and must rely on infant formula. It is important that the infant formula chosen provides optimal nutritional benefits.
A recent international survey looked at the health and nutrition claims made between 2020 and 2022 on infant formula available in Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, the UK and the US.
Researchers looked at claims that linked the product, or an ingredient contained in it, with a beneficial effect relating to infant health, growth and development. They identified 757 infant formulas that made an average of two claims.
Of the products that made one or more claims, 53% claimed the formula “helps/supports development of brain and/or eyes and/or nervous system," 39% claimed it “strengthens/supports a healthy immune system,” and in 37%, the claim was that the formula “helps/supports growth and development.”
Of concern to the researchers, in 74% of products, there was no scientific evidence to support their particular health claims.
Where products did provide scientific references, more than half (56%) referred to reviews, opinion pieces, or animal studies, not human studies. Only 14% referred to prospectively registered clinical trials. Prospective registration is the process where researchers publicly specify the details of a trial before enrolling participants. In 88% of cases, the registered trials received funding from the infant formula industry or bodies directly affiliated with the industry.
It is easy to understand how and why parents and caregivers reasonably rely on the claims made by infant formulas. It is reasonable for them to assume that if a claim that a formula improves brain development, for example, it must be true.
In 1981, the World Health Organization (WHO) published its Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. The Code seeks to regulate infant formula marketing and was written in response to the promotion, by the infant formula industry, of formula feeding over breastfeeding.
Implementation of the Code is voluntary. Governments worldwide are called upon to ensure the provision of “objective and consistent” information about infant feeding but are not required to adopt legislation to enforce the Code.
This lack of consistency and oversight appears to have been borne out in the current study, the results of which have clear ethical implications. The researchers believe that self-regulation of the infant formula industry is not working and recommend that there be greater scrutiny when making specific health and nutrition claims concerning formula.
They are calling for government and regulatory agencies to review unsubstantiated health claims like those seen in the study.
“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,” writes Dr Nigel Rollins of the WHO in an opinion piece accompanying the study.
The current study's upshot is that when choosing infant formula, it is important for parents and caregivers to check whether the health and nutrition claims made are substantiated by scientific research.
The study was published in the BMJ.