New Study Says Most Infant Formula Claims Not Based On Science: What Every Black Family Needs To Know

African American father holding newborn babyAfrican Americans have some of the lowest rates of breastfeeding. That means more of our infants are formula fed. Understanding the benefits of breastfeeding and the nutritional quality of breast milk substitutes is critical to improving infant and early childhood health outcomes in the Black community.

A new study from The Changing Markets Foundation shows that most infant formula claims, such as preventing allergies or promoting better sleep, are not actually based on scientific evidence, but are used primarily to boost profits. The report, called Milking It—How Milk Formula Companies Are Putting Profits Before Science, reviewed over 400 breast milk substitute products in 14 countries, and concluded that the increasing product differentiation is not science-based at all, but instead informed by careful market research into consumer preferences, guided by a desire to boost profits. The report calls for a comprehensive overhaul of infant formula products and their regulation so that only those based on unequivocal scientific advice are sold.

The research is the first-of-its kind report to investigate the differences between breast milk substitute products produced by the world’s four largest manufacturers: Nestle, Danone, Mead Johnson Nutrition (maker of Enfamil) and Abbott (maker of Similac). The study found that instead of research, companies use very sophisticated market research and social media to primarily gauge consumer affordability and willingness as the key determinant of additional ingredients and nutritional claims. That means if a company determines through its market research, that for example, customers in a certain region will pay a higher price for a formula that claims to, limit colic or soften stools, for example, then they will create that even though the nutritional quality is not much different than their base product. Meanwhile, the study found that while the companies often claim these benefits are based on “the best nutritional science available”, that that was rarely the case.

Infant formula companies are not public health companies—they are corporate entities with shareholder demands and profit expectations to meet. “Infant formula makers, soda companies—these are not social service agencies. They are businesses whose primary job is to produce dividends for investors,” said Marion Nestle, author and professor of nutrition at New York University.

The study also found that regulation of these claims and the actual ingredients was lax across many countries. In the U.S., the government does not require infant formula companies to disclose the added sugar content of all formulas, yet some independent studies found some brands had up to 13.5 grams of sugar per serving, equivalent to half the amount of sugar in a eight-ounce Red Bull.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) all recommend breastmilk as the healthiest source of infant nutrition. This is particularly important for Black infants because breastmilk…