Statements made by infant formula manufacturers lack scientific evidence

Statements made by infant formula manufacturers lack scientific evidence Claims about the benefits of food products (including infant formulas) that manufacturers use in advertising are often unfounded and can mislead parents and doctors. Scientists from Sechenov University and their colleagues from the UK suggested how to change the requirements for advertising baby food so that it does not increase health risks for babies and does not discourage breastfeeding. The paper was published in BMJ.

Over the past 150 years, manufacturers of infant formulas have significantly improved their composition, but according to the recommendations of the World Health Organization, mother’s milk remains the best nutrition for babies. At the same time, the current regulatory framework for advertising foodstuffs allows manufacturers to make statements about their benefits without providing sufficient evidence.

Previous research and reviews show that some claims by formula manufacturers (for example, that they ‘reduce the risk of developing a cow’s milk allergy’, ‘promote intelligence’ or ‘ease colic and improve digestion’) have a rather weak scientific basis. In some cases, manufacturers refer to studies that gave contradictory conclusions, in others – to results that were not confirmed by other researchers. Some manufacturers use conference papers as evidence rather than peer-reviewed articles, while others simply leave statements without justification.

‘Infant formula is an important food product, often consumed in high volumes in relation to an infant’s body size. Yet when we look at claims made about the nutritional or health effects of formula products, we find little supportive evidence,’ said Dr Robert Boyle, leading study author and specialist in child allergy at National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College.

The authors of the study believe that, since the child’s body is very sensitive to any influences, including the type of food, infant formula manufacturers should bear greater responsibility for the promises they make. Currently, legislation in this area differs significantly depending on the country. Since February 2020, for instance, manufacturers in the European Union have been prohibited from declaring the benefits of mixtures (with some exceptions), while in the United States there are no such restrictions, provided that the statements are true and not misleading.

In Russia, there is a ban on the advertisements for infant formulas if they represent them as a full-fledged replacement for breast milk or do not contain information about age restrictions. The Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) can consider claims about the benefits of mixtures, but their scientific justification is not checked. In April 2019, a bill was submitted to the State Duma to completely ban the advertising of infant formulas intended for children under one year of age (an exception is supposed to be made for advertising at medical conferences and in publications for doctors), but it has not been considered by the Duma yet.

Researchers suggest several significant changes to the rules of production and advertising of infant formulas. First, changes to the composition must be considered by the regulator before the sale begins. Second, the requirements for substantiating claims should be significantly higher than they are now. Third, if any change in the composition has actually made the product more useful, it should become mandatory for all manufacturers.

‘When a change to infant formula composition is proven to reduce the risks associated with formula feeding, then that change should be made mandatory across infant formula so that all formula-fed infants can benefit,’ explained Dr Daniel Munblit, Associate Professor of Paediatrics from Sechenov University and first author of the paper.

Despite the strictness of these rules, as the authors specify, they should encourage manufacturers to improve the composition of mixtures: for example, if a new technology or ingredient has proven its usefulness and has been included in the standard, the manufacturer who developed them will be able to offer them to other companies.

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