For Nestlé, the Swiss food and beverage giant, diversifying its formula milk offerings harbours great promise. But industry critics are sceptical.
Weeks into his life, Lindsay Beeson’s son developed a rash, had blood in his nappies and suffered from diarrhoea and vomiting. Doctors determined he was allergic to cow milk.
Beeson, like countless other mothers in her situation, eliminated milk in her own diet and supplemented her breastmilk with hypoallergenic infant formula. When her son turned one, he moved on to a specially formulated milk for toddlers with allergies.
“I knew that with this he was getting the right balance of protein, fat and vitamins, just like cow’s milk,” she told swissinfo.ch. “And my son liked the taste.”
For big nutrition conglomerates like Nestlé, products like these, targeted at older babies with allergies, special dietary needs or simply picky eaters, are the next frontier in infant nutrition offerings.
“We want to address all babies, not just formula-fed babies,” Thierry Philardeau, Nestle’s head of nutrition, told a group of reporters at the company’s R&D operations in Lausanne. “All stages, all babies and all mums.”
In practical terms, the strategy is about filling nutritional gaps for mothers and babies whether they are exclusively formula-fed, breastfed, or a mix of both. While still focused on premature babies and those with specific medical needs, the Swiss multinational has been boosting R&D investment in the six-months-plus stage when breastmilk alone is no longer enough to meet a child’s nutritional needs.
What Nestlé does affects the health of millions of children. More than 150 years after Henri Nestlé developed Farine Lactée, an infant cereal to help undernourished babies, Nestlé is the largest infant formula company in the world, capturing a fifth of the market, followed by Danone.
After rising breastfeeding rates in the past few decades cut into infant formula profits, the milk formula business is now booming. This is thanks in large part to growing-up milk, which generated the majority of global sales growth in 2018, according to Euromonitorexternal link.
Supermarkets in many parts of the world are now stocked with a range of powders and ready-made milk products and substitutes for children over one year.
But not everyone is happy about these products.
Some industry critics like Patti Rundall are crying foul. Rundall has been the policy director at Baby Milk Action since the 1980s, leading some of the biggest legal challenges against Nestlé’s formula business.
“Nestlé and Danone are leading the push for formulas and growing-up milks for children from 6 to 36 months and even upwards to nine years old,” she said. “They use the same branding as infant formula or very similar, so parents then see the logos for infant formula and think this is a whole trajectory.”
She believes the new product formulations are simply a marketing ploy. “All the follow-on formulas and the growing-up milks and junior milks, they’re just not necessary,” Rundall told swissinfo.ch.
“They should come off the market. But the market has become so huge, no one wants to do that, and they know it gets around the code.”
She is referring to the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutesexternal link from 1981 that set the standard for responsible marketing practices, including limits on public advertising, sponsorships and free samples of baby formula.
Its core message is that exclusive breastfeeding until six months is the best, something that both big companies like Nestlé and its critics agree on. Divisions emerge at the stage when other food and beverages can be introduced at around six months or later in life.
This period can be particularly confusing for parents as they often receive contradicting information from formula manufacturers, doctors and sceptics about what they should be feeding their children.
Some scientific studiesexternal link argue that what has been labelled “growing-up milk” for children between one and three years of age is not necessary but can compensate for nutritional deficiencies, particularly in cases of bad dietary habits or when certain nutrients are unavailable in local foods.
The criticism of Nestlé is not out of nowhere. It’s been four decades since campaigners accused Nestlé of using aggressive marketing tactics that led mothers to abandon breastfeeding in favour of formula. The ensuing widespread boycott of Nestlé led to major changes in the marketing practices by big companies.