The majority of health claims advertised on baby formula products lack scientific evidence, according to an international survey. Researchers are calling for more rigorous regulations to protect consumers from the potential harms associated with aggressive marketing of these products.
Daniel Munblit, honorary senior lecturer at Imperial College London and co-author of the study, said that their research was not a “crusade” against infant formula, as it should remain available for mothers unable to breastfeed. However, he emphasized that misleading claims not backed up by solid evidence should be avoided.
The study, published in the British Medical Journal on February 15, examined the packaging of formula products and their health claims in fifteen countries in 2020-2022. The most common claims advertised are for supporting brain development, immunity, and growth, but no scientific reference was provided for almost three-quarters of products making specific health claims. Additionally, half of the products made claims without reference to a specific ingredient. When references were provided, over half were clinical trials, but the rest were reviews, opinion pieces, or other research, including animal studies. Furthermore, 90 percent of claims that cited registered clinical trials carried a high risk of bias.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about six months, if possible, but only 44 percent of infants up to six months old are exclusively breastfed. Breastmilk is the ideal food for infants, as it is safe, clean, and contains antibodies which help protect against many common childhood illnesses. Breastfed children perform better on intelligence tests, are less likely to be overweight or obese, and are less prone to diabetes later in life. Women who breastfeed also have a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancers.
A report in 2022 found that pregnant women in China, Vietnam, and the UK are exposed to baby formula advertisements that breach global marketing guidelines for formula milk. These “aggressive” marketing techniques can push women away from breastfeeding. Another study found that formula milk had double the sugar per serving than a glass of soft drink. While there are codes to restrict the marketing of baby formula products, they are mostly voluntary, and manufacturers don’t have to abide by them.
Overall, the research suggests that breastfeeding newborns is the best option and that there needs to be stronger regulations to protect consumers from the harms associated with aggressive marketing of baby formula products.