The Health Claims Behind Infant Formulas Examined

Category Technology

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A research team from Imperial College London examined the claims of infant formula related to immunity and brain development. They found that a small number of clinical investigations were done on humans, and most claims were based on little or no evidence. Norwegian legislation to prevent undocumented claims from being used, as well as supportive social arrangements that allow many mothers to breastfeed, are in place.

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Many baby formulas make grand promises. Numerous brands assert that they aid in brain development, enhance immunity, foster growth and development in children, and more.

Recently, a research team headed by Imperial College London has examined the validity of these claims. The findings have been published in The BMJ.

"Most of the claims about the health-giving and nutritional properties of breast milk substitutes seem to be based on little or no evidence," the research group says.

An average of 6 out of 10 infants in high-income nations are breastfed beyond 4 months

Claims surrounding these replacement milk products are controversial. They can give the impression that infant formulas are just as good as breast milk, and perhaps even better, without any scientific basis for the claim.

The researchers examined products from 15 countries with different social and economic conditions. Norwegian data are also included.

Norway has had a tradition of breastfeeding infants for a long time. Four out of five infants in Norway still receive breast milk when they are six months old, and only two percent never receive any breast milk (in Norwegian).

In Norway, six out of seven breastfed children are breastfed for at least 6 months

"Supportive social arrangements and long parental leave contribute to allowing many mothers in Norway to breastfeed," says Melanie Rae Simpson, an associate professor at NTNU’s Department of Public Health and Nursing.

Simpson has contributed data to the new survey. She is happy about the social arrangements.

"Strict rules for marketing breast milk substitutes mean that advertising doesn’t influence how long women in Norway breastfeed," says Simpson.

Breast milk contains a wide range of macro and micronutrients that formula milk does not provide

At the same time, some infant formulas make a lot of promises.

"A relatively high proportion of the products available in Norway include one or more claims about being beneficial for health," says Simpson.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the situation in Norway is that bad.

"With so many women who breastfeed, we don’t have as many different types of infant formula in our grocery stores compared to some of the other countries in the study," she says.

80 countries have legislation limiting advertisement of breast milk substitutes

This means that a relatively high proportion of the products in Norway are sold in pharmacies.

"These are basically made for children with special needs," Simpson points out. The claims of these products are therefore often linked precisely to the special needs of children, but not always.

Norway has clear legislation to prevent undocumented claims from being used in connection with breast milk substitutes. Nevertheless, the documentation was characterized by the same challenges around transparency, independence from industry and scientific quality that the research group saw in the other countries.

There are 6,400 baby formula products on the market hence, making it the most regulated food products

The research group examined the websites of the various companies that make infant formula. They also inspected the packaging of the products and checked all the health and nutrition claims against the documentation.

The research group found 41 different ingredients linked to these claims, but several companies also market their products without referring to specific ingredients.

The group tested a total of 757 products, and 608 of them included at least one of a total of 31 different claims about nutrition and health.

The European Union has made it mandatory for baby products to include labels with all ingredients

Only 161 of the 608 products referred to scientific research to support their claims. But only a small number, about 14 percent of the investigations, were clinical investigations carried out on humans.

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