SWITZERLAND — According to a major new study published in The Lancet, many baby formula milk companies allegedly exploit parents’ emotions and “manipulate” scientific data to boost sales.

The analysis, led by Professor Nigel Rollins of the World Health Organization, said urgent clampdowns are needed to address misleading claims made by the industry.

It follows the formula crisis in the United States last year, when parents were unable to find formula due to global supply chain issues exacerbated by a large recall of Abbott baby formula after two infants died.

Scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports breastfeeding newborns, if possible and desired. Breastfeeding has well-documented health benefits for both the parent and the baby.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, babies who are breastfed are at lower risk of illnesses and diseases including asthma, obesity, type 1 diabetes, and sudden infant death syndrome.

Babies can also receive antibodies from their mothers’ breast milk, which strengthens their immune systems and helps keep them healthy.

Meanwhile, breastfeeding mothers reduce their risk of breast and ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.

According to the authors, while many new parents choose to breastfeed, others do not, and all choices should be supported.

How the formula milk industry uses exploitative marketing practices

According to the analysis, formula milk companies use exploitative tactics to sell products such as preying on parents’ fears about their children’s health and development.

The formula milk industry has made several profits which benefit companies located in high-income countries, the Series stated. Low-and middle-income countries are the ones most affected due to social, economic and environmental harms associated with the formula milk industry’s marketing tactics.

In 1981, the World Health Assembly, triggered by The Baby Killer investigative report into Nestle’s marketing of formula milk in the Global South in the 1970s, developed the voluntary International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and subsequent resolutions (the Code).

However, the milk formula industry continues to violate the Code through its marketing techniques. Over the past twenty years, sales from commercial milk formula have rapidly increased. Now, they are at more than US$55 billion a year.

For example, companies have said it’s important to introduce formula to help settle the behaviors of babies, such as disrupted sleep and persistent crying, implying that breast milk alone is not enough.

The formula milk industry uses poor science to suggest, with little supporting evidence, that their products are solutions to common infant health and developmental challenges,” co-author Professor Linda Richter, from Wits University in South Africa, said in a press release.

Adverts claim specialized formulas alleviate fussiness, help with colic, prolong night-time sleep, and even encourage superior intelligence.”

There are often labels on the packaging of baby formula milk that use words such as ‘brain’, ‘neuro’, and ‘IQ’ with images because the companies want to emotionally manipulate parents into believing that the consumption of this product will help with early development.

However, studies have shown no benefit of these product ingredients on academic performance or long-term cognition, Richter explained.

The marketing technique violates the 1981 Code, according to which labels should not idealize the use of formula.

Formula milk marketing also uses gender politics to sell its products, and exploits the lack of support for breastfeeding by governments.

The authors noted in the series that the formula milk industry frames breastfeeding advocacy as a moralistic judgment that is anti-feminist and damaging to women.

Meanwhile, the analysis also alleged that formula milk companies used advertisements to imply formula industry presents milk as a convenient and empowering solution for working mothers who often don’t have enough parental leave or support in their places of work.

The authors called for broader societal changes to help offset the exploitative behavior of formula milk companies.

This includes adequate maternity leave with the team imploring “governments and workplaces to recognize the value of breastfeeding and care work, by actions such as extending paid maternity leave duration to align with the six-month WHO recommended duration of exclusive breastfeeding.”

They also recommended that healthcare systems promote breastfeeding and support women to help them with any breastfeeding help during pregnancy, childbirth, and after.

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