How Nestlé gets children hooked on sugar in lower-income countries

Media coverage of the sugar report

STOP PRESS: As Shareholders gathered for the Nestlé Annual meeting in Switzerland on 18th April, the company”s share price dropped by over 5% on the Indian Stockmarket – Nestlé’s worst single day in 3 years was sparked by the Public Eye/IBFAN sugar report and reports that governments of India and Bangladesh are opening investigations into the matter.

Nestlé’s leading baby-food brands, promoted in low- and middle-income countries as healthy and key to supporting young children’s development, contain high levels of added sugar. In Switzerland, where Nestlé is headquartered, such products are sold with no added sugar. These are the main findings of a new investigation by Public Eye and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), which shed light on Nestlé’s hypocrisy and the deceptive marketing strategies deployed by the Swiss food giant.

Two of the best-selling baby-food brands marketed by Nestlé in low- and middle-income countries contain high levels of added sugar, while such products are sugar free in its home country, Switzerland. These are the key findings of an investigation by Public Eye and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN). On the eve of its Annual General Meeting, pressure mounts on Nestlé to put an end to this unjustifiable and harmful double standard, which contributes to the explosive rise of obesity and leads children to develop a life-long preference for sugary products.

Fifty years on from the start of  the infant formula scandal, Nestlé claims to have learned from the past while doing everything it can to keep its world leadership in infant and young child nutrition. The food giant controls 20 percent of the baby-food market, valued at nearly $70 billion. With more than $2.5 billion in world sales in 2022, Cerelac and Nido are some of Nestlé’s best-selling baby-food brands in low- and middle-income countries. The multinational aggressively advertises these products as essential to children’s healthy development in its main markets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The results of the investigation “How Nestlé gets children hooked on sugar in lower-income countries” tells a completely different story. Public Eye and IBFAN scrutinized around 150 products sold by the food giant in lower-income countries. Almost all the Cerelac infant cereals examined contain added sugar – nearly 4 grams per serving on average, equal to roughly a sugar cube – although they are targeted at babies from six months of age. The highest amount – 7.3 grams per serving – was detected in a product sold in the Philippines. Most of the Nido powdered-milk products for young children from one to three years old examined also contain added sugar – almost two grams per serving on average. The maximum value (5.3 grams) was detected in a product sold in Panama. In Switzerland and in Nestlé’s main European markets, such products are sold without added sugar.

The paediatricians and child nutrition experts interviewed by Public Eye denounce a double standard that is unjustifiable and problematic from an ethical and public health perspective, particularly in view of the obesity epidemic affecting low-income countries. The WHO warns that exposure to sugar early in life can create a life-long preference for sugary products that increases the risk of developing obesity and other chronic illnesses. Since 2022, the UN agency is calling for a ban on added sugar in products for babies and young children under three years of age.

Whereas Nestlé recommends publicly to avoid baby foods that contain added sugar, it takes advantage of the weakness of existing regulations to continue selling such products in lower-income countries. Furthermore, the investigation by Public Eye and IBFAN shows that the Swiss multinational uses misleading marketing strategies, such as utilizing medical professionals and social media influencers to win the trust of parents in its products.

Nothing can justify the double standards highlighted by the Public Eye and IBFAN investigation. If Nestlé truly intends to act responsibly, it must follow all the recommendations adopted by the World Health Assembly (the world’s top health policy setting body) and stop getting babies and young children hooked on sugar and artificially sweetened products,  regardless of the country in which they were born.

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