Feb. 17, 2023

Researchers point to lack of scientific evidence for baby formula claims, urge stricter marketing regulations worldwide

UCalgary nursing researcher Meredith Brockway leads Canadian arm of international survey
Meredith Brockway

While about 91 per cent of all Canadian mothers initiate breastfeeding with the birth of their infant, only 34 per cent breastfeed exclusively for six months, with lower rates among socially and/or economically vulnerable women. 

“While formula provides adequate nutrition for most infants, it lacks numerous other components that are present in human milk that positively impact infant growth and development,” says Dr, Meredith Brockway, RN, PhD, a co-author of a paper published in The British Medical Journal on Feb. 15.

“As such, formula companies are trying to add some of these components to formula in an attempt to better replicate human milk. However, the science to support these additives is lacking.”

Brockway was part of an international group of researchers across 15 countries who reviewed the websites of infant formula companies. “We challenge the unscientific claims that formula companies are making regarding their additives,” she says. An assistant professor at UCalgary Nursing and an expert in human milk and breastfeeding who led the Canada portion of the survey, Brockway says formula companies commonly claim their products benefit brain development, immunity and growth in young infants.

Scientific references, if provided, are weak


While formula provides adequate nutrition for most infants, it lacks numerous other components that are present in human milk that positively impact infant growth and development.


Scientific references were not provided for most (74 per cent) of products making specific health claims. Across all countries, only 161 out of 608 (26 per cent) with at least one claim provided a scientific reference to support the claim. Of the claims that provided a reference, 56 per cent reported findings of clinical trials of which only 14 per cent were registered and 90 per cent of these trials contained a high risk of bias. The remaining references were reviews, opinion pieces or other types of research including animal studies.

“This means that the evidence used to support these claims is really of quite low quality,” Brockway says.

While these are observational findings and Brockway says there are some limitations, such as possible inconsistencies in data collection or missing products, health and nutrition claims on products are controversial because they can enhance the perceived benefits of formula over breastfeeding and thereby undermine breastfeeding.

What’s more, 84 per cent of these trials had authors who either received formula industry funding or were directly affiliated with industry. As consumers, we need to be aware of the conflict this could potentially pose in how these results are interpreted. This does not provide much confidence in the evidence to support these claims.

“This study included evidence from a range of countries and information was collected in a way that enabled our team to formally document the relationship between health and nutrition claims and ingredients cited in infant formula,” Brockway explains. “We are hoping our results — which support revised regulatory frameworks for breast milk substitutes to better protect consumers — will generate lots of important discussion about the continued unethical marketing by formula companies.”

The BMJ is a weekly peer-reviewed medical trade journal, published by the British Medical Association (BMA). Read the complete article.

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