Nestle called out for false health claims and deceptive marketing of its infant formula

The baby formula market is worth over $47 billion a year and is expected to increase by a further 50 percent in the next three years. Of the four biggest companies raking in most of these profits – Nestlé, Danone, Mead Johnson Nutrition and Abbott – Nestlé takes the lion’s share of the spoils, with a massive 22 percent market share.

While baby formula is one of the planet’s fastest growing and most lucrative markets, it is also fiercely competitive, with companies allocating massive budgets to marketing campaigns. This is particularly true in third world countries, where mothers longing for westernization have been hooked on formula for decades.

Nestlé is no stranger to controversy. Back in the 1970s, the company was accused of promoting its baby formulas to third world mothers, convincing them that it was more convenient and just as beneficial as breastmilk. In reality, formula is much more expensive and far less healthy than breastmilk.

Hearings were held in the U.S. Senate and investigations launched by the World Health Organization at the time, which led to the drawing up of very specific rules for the marketing of baby formula in 1981.

According to Business Insider, these rules stipulated that formula manufacturers could not:

  • Promote products in hospitals, shops or to the general public
  • Give free samples to mothers
  • Give gifts to health workers or mothers
  • Give misleading information

A February 2018 report by the organization Changing Markets, entitled “Busting the Myth of Science-Based Formula,” noted that Nestlé takes great pride in its “scientific credentials” and claims to be striving to be “the world’s leading nutrition, health and wellness company.” The aim of the report was to investigate whether the company’s commitment to science is genuine or is simply a marketing strategy.

The report noted that over 92 million babies under the age of six months – or two thirds of all babies – are on formula, either exclusively or in combination with breastmilk or other foods. This places a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the manufacturers of these products, since they are responsible for “the nutritional status, health and wellbeing” of all these infants. (Related: Shocking levels of arsenic found in baby formula made with brown rice syrup.)

The Changing Markets investigation found that rather than using science as a responsible way to ensure the health of their tiny consumers, Nestlé uses its scientific credentials purely for marketing purposes, and provides conflicting scientific “evidence” on its products in different countries:

The investigation reveals many examples of inconsistencies, where Nestlé’s products contradict its own scientific advice. For example, some of Nestlé’s infant milks sold in Hong Kong are marketed as healthier for not having ‘any added vanilla flavour or flavourings for baby’s good growth’. However, the investigation found several Nestlé products that contain vanillin compounds in Hong Kong, mainland China and in South Africa. In a similar fashion, the company advises parents against giving sucrose to infants on its products in Brazil and Hong Kong, but not in South Africa, where products were found to contain the ingredient.

The WHO regulations adopted in 1981 made it very clear that formula could not be marketed in any way as being comparable to breastmilk. However, the Changing Markets report noted that in different countries the company uses marketing phrases like “our closest to breastmilk,” “following the example of breastmilk,” “inspired by human milk” and as “having an identical structure” to breastmilk. These statements are misleading and imply that formula is very similar to breastmilk, offering the same benefits. (Related: The grim reality of choosing baby formula over breastmilk.)

Nutra Ingredients reported that Nestlé has vehemently denied the allegations in the report, insisting:

We do not use any statements on our infant formula products or in our other communications that idealize our products or imply they are superior to or equivalent to breastmilk.

Modern infant formulas are compositionally closer to human milk. As such, we permit communications stating that our infant formula ingredients are ‘inspired by breastmilk’ or contain components comparable with components of breastmilk.

One thing is certain: As long as infant formula continues to be such a huge money spinner, companies like Nestlé will continue to spread scientific misinformation to suit their own purposes – no matter who gets hurt in the process.

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