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Milk makers putting profit over science, and conning parents

You have a baby, and there comes a time when—by choice or necessity—you might need to introduce infant formula. You go for the choice brand on the market. After all, who wants their precious little one not to get the best?

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Don’t be deceived. What you think is the choice infant formula could just be claiming what you want to hear—not what your baby needs.

A new investigation has revealed a lack of any science behind product ranges of top four baby milk companies.

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It shows the top four makers of baby milk formulas— Nestlé, Danone, Mead Johnson Nutrition and Abbott—are unduly boosting profits by exploiting parents’ desire to give the best possible nutrition to their babies.

The report “Milking It: How milk formula companies are putting profits before science” was done by The Changing Markets Foundation, Globalization Monitor and SumOfUs.

SumOfUs, which claims to fight for people over profits, has turned the report into a petition, garnering more than 42,200 signatures so far to stop the manipulative marking and hiked-up prices of infant formula.

Market differentiation

Investigators reviewed more than 400 infant milks for babies under 12 months of age from the four leading global makers—which command largest shares of 14 markets—and concluded the differences in their products were not based on science.

The differences were based on marketing research into what consumers (in this case, parents) liked—and were guided by a desire to increase market share and profits.

It was most telling in highly competitive and rapid growing markets like Asia.

Some of the biggest claims by infant milk makers are that their product is closest to breast milk, an ostensible reference to their content of omega-3 acids crucial to brain development.

The most touted is docosahexanoic acid (DHA), required for brain and eye development and function throughout life. Others are eicosapentanoic acid (EPA), an omega-3 fatty acid required for overall health, and alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), an energy source and building blocks for the two others.

The tweaks to the contents of milk makes for differentiations that label milk brands as “premium” or not.

Among other claims, makers of milk could claim different product lines as organic, free of genetically modified organism, 100% lactose, palm-oil-free, starch-free, vanilla flavour or aluminum-free.

Researchers in their investigation of the products found “premium” formulas contain additional nutrients not required by law or global standards. At the same time the products claimed to be closest to breast milk or represent latest developments in nutritional science.

Other products contain specific ingredients claiming to solve general conditions (preventing allergies, promoting softer stools and better sleep, etc), or to be free of genetically modified organisms, the researchers said in their report.

Placing different products on different markets suggests “little nutritional science and few beneficial health considerations behind their extensive product ranges,” the report said.

“Our report found that instead of nutritional science, companies are basing their selling strategies on market research and consumer preferences,” said Nusa Urbancic from Changing Markets Foundation.

“Product differentials are carefully and deliberately designed to appeal to the tastes and lifestyle preferences of parents, or their natural desire to give their babies the best possible start in life. As such, manufacturers can package these products in ‘premium’ ranges and charge high prices accordingly.”

Big milk

Infant milk is a $47 billion-a-year industry, and is expected to nearly double by 2020.

Manufacturers target different regions with different products and command different retail prices for the same product across regions, the investigation revealed.

At least 43% of all milk formula sales are in China. Lesser percentages are sold in the rest of Asia, Europe, North America and South America combined. Another seven in 100 sales are in the rest of the world.

This means that parents in China can spend up to 40% of their average salary on infant formula. In comparison, the most expensive formula in European countries will only cost 1-3% of an average salary, according to the report.

“This report reveals huge disparities in the cost of infant formula, both within and between countries,” said Rena Lau from Globalization Monitor, based in Hong Kong.

“Milk formula companies are exploiting the concerns of Chinese parents, who still remember very vividly the melamine contamination scandal and experience environmental pollution in the country, so are willing to pay more for premium products, as well as buy imported products. It is very concerning that premium products cost up to 2.5-times more and that they are not based on any scientifically proven beneficial value, but on parents’ willingness to pay. I would say it causes doubly unfair treatment to Chinese parents.”