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Formula makers’ claims about breast milk are dangerous and misleading, experts say

Researchers found that infant formula websites had more negative messages on breast milk than formula feeding.
Baby formula - Getty
(Getty Images)

Manufacturers claim that formula feeding has more nutritional value than breast milk while also focusing on the difficulties of breastfeeding, a study found.

Researchers say the marketing messages are dangerous and misleading, according to findings published this week in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

Jennifer Pomeranz, assistant professor of public health policy and management at NYU School of Global Public Health and the study’s lead author, looked at three major formula brands “that make up 98% of the U.S. market and two organic brands to compare messages and images” about breast milk and infant formula.

Pomeranz and her team found that several infant formula websites had more negative messages on breastfeeding and breast milk than formula feeding.

“Even if websites frame their ‘advice’ as providing solutions to the problems identified, it is completely inappropriate for a formula company to disseminate information — let alone negative information — about breastfeeding to new parents and mothers in particular,” Pomeranz said in a news release.

For example, 40% of the websites’ breastfeeding content revolved around challenges associated with having a low supply of breast milk or trouble latching, researchers said.

Nearly 44% of the websites mentioned the advantages of formula, including brain and gastrointestinal benefits, compared to only 26% mentioning the benefits of breast milk.

Manufacturers also compared formula feeding to breastfeeding instead of other formula brands, researchers found.

Images distributed on formula websites also made breastfeeding look “difficult and labor intensive,” compared to that of formula feeding.

“Infant formula manufacturers’ repeated communication about breastfeeding problems such as reduced breast milk supply or sore nipples, coupled with images of women holding their breasts to breastfeed, implies that breastfeeding is hard, painful work. These recurring messages may ultimately discourage breastfeeding,” Pomeranz said in a news release.

Breast milk is recommended as the “sole source of nutrition during a child’s first six months,” according to several U.S. and global health officials.

Currently, there are 50 FDA approved types of powdered milk, according to the New York Times. Baby formula is a booming industry in the U.S., where sales are expected to reach $5.8 billion by 2027, according to Alllied Market Research.

Formula is manufactured under “sterile conditions” and duplicates a mother’s milk using a combination of “proteins, sugars, fats, and vitamins that aren’t possible to create at home,” according to kidshealth.org.

But researchers say that formula companies can influence norms and attitudes about infant feeding and chip away at the health benefits of breast milk.

To prevent this, the World Health Organization encourages countries to ban “the marketing of formula to consumers.”

Since the U.S. doesn’t have any regulations preventing formula companies from doing so, the study encourages the federal government to better control marketing messages and product labeling on websites. Researchers also hope that health professionals will do a better job of counseling their patients to stay away from formula websites as main sources of information.

“It is important to understand the messages caregivers are receiving directly from formula companies, whose websites are targeting pregnant women and new parents with marketing claims disguised as feeding advice and support,” Pomeranz said.

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