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Commentary: Flashy marketing deceives new mothers

The global milk formula industry is huge and growing rapidly, projected to reach US$110B by 2026.
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Deceptive marketing by the formula milk industry is a growing problem, says health columnist. Photo submitted.

 

The global formula milk industry is growing rapidly, at about US$55 billion and projected to reach US$110B by 2026. Aggressive and deceptive marketing by manufacturers is driving this growth. The World Health Organization (WHO) is ringing alarms. It charges the industry with using new digital marketing tactics to target pregnant women and new mothers with “personalized social media content that is often not recognizable as advertising.”

The Internet and smart phones are wonderful tools. But they can also be dangerous. Women have breastfed babies since the beginning of time. Animals thrive without big pharma. Human babies do too.

The WHO says the digital onslaught by industry reaches 2.47 billion people. The intention is to plant concerns in the minds of new mothers that their natural breast milk is insufficient. They set out to convince new mothers that they’re nutritionally uneducated and irresponsible if they choose traditional breast milk.

Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of the WHO Nutrition and Food Safety department, says “The promotion of commercial milk formulas should have been terminated decades ago.”  He adds, “That formula milk companies are now employing even more powerful and insidious marketing techniques to drive up their sales is inexcusable and must be stopped.”

What are the natural benefits that breast milk has always given babies?  For one, mother’s milk transfers antibodies to build immunity against infection.

Ameae Walker, Professor of Biomedical Science at UC Riverside School of Medicine, explains copies of these cells will provide immunity to the baby for life. Breastfeeding protects mothers as well by reducing risk of breast and ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Apart from conveying immunity, extensive research shows breast milk offers increased long-term protection from a host of diseases.  Breast-fed babies have less chance of developing ear, respiratory, and urinary infections. They are more resilient against bacterial meningitis, a serious condition that can lead to death. Breastfeeding decreases the risk of obesity, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, high blood pressure and heart disease.

While antibodies in breast milk adjust to a growing baby’s evolving needs, manufactured formula is unchanging and has no antibodies. Instead, manufacturers add ingredients designed to foster good gut bacteria. This may help protect babies from illness, but not to the same degree.

It has also been found vitamins and minerals added to manufactured milk cause increased gas in babies and more constipation. Bottle feeding affects mother-child bonding. And formula fed babies have an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome.

Expectant mothers have reason for confidence, not trepidation, in their ability to breastfeed babies. At best, it should be deemed unethical to market misleading information about baby formula. At worst, given the lifelong health consequences at stake, and the duty to care for society’s youngest and most vulnerable members, such marketing should be criminal.

There are, of course, circumstances in which formula is the right choice. These mothers should be supported, not shamed. It’s an obvious fact that many babies raised on formula have fared just fine. There are geniuses, concert pianists, gold-medal athletes, doctors, lawyers and every other professional among them.

But the economics of the formula milk industry is the problem. This industry should not be allowed to profit at the expense of parental confidence and children’s health – yet profit is precisely the boardroom mandate of these companies. Looked at another way, the total cost of formula feeding is estimated to be US$900-$3,000 per year. Those funds would be better spent other ways.

It’s the WHO’s boring reports versus deceptive digital marketing. Not a good match up.

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