Why are we so dependent on infant formula?

  • By Robin Barker
  • 14 Oct, 2017

The rush on Australian infant formula by Chinese parents, and the subsequent marketing boom for dairy farmers and infant formula manufacturers, has been a regular news item for the last few years.



It’s fascinating that in all the reporting no one (in the mainstream media at least), is questioning why the demand for formula is so high both here and in China. Why is it taken for granted that formula is an essential part of infant nutrition? How is it that a shortage of supply verges on the catastrophic when for many babies formula can be bypassed? Or at least only used minimally between six and twelve months in conjunction with other food?

                            Why are we so dependent on infant formula?

  Before everyone goes bananas about the sensitivities of mothers who can’t breastfeed, rest assured after failing to breastfeed one of my own, and working for years in an occupation where I not only helped women to breastfeed but also helped them wean, I am acutely aware of the emotional and psychological toll that breastfeeding hassles and subsequent catastrophes can take (something the marketers of infant formula exploit to the utmost).

 I am only too happy to acknowledge the need for a safe human milk substitute however, surely, it’s possible to talk about the overuse of infant formula and query why this is might be happening without the discussion being smothered by accusations of insensitivity towards mothers who struggle with breastfeeding and end up weaning.


Following the contaminated infant formula catastrophe in China several years ago - https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2008/10/09/the-story-behind-chinas-tainted-milk-scandal I can understand the lack of trust Chinese parents have in their own product however the rush on Australian infant formula by Chinese parents, and the reported demise of breastfeeding in China by about half of all mothers in the last twenty years, -  http://en.people.cn/n3/2017/0808/c90000-9252592.html - strongly suggests that formula manufacturers are clearly winning the hearts and minds of parents around the globe in ways that have nothing to do with infant nutrition.

Despite decades of attempts to persuade infant formula manufacturers to behave ethically, breastfeeding promoters are losing the battle. The manufacturers, along with their sales reps, their advertising gurus, their medical professionals and nutritional experts, have done a wonderful job in setting themselves up as a caring, sympathetic, reassuring antidote to the obsessive, militant ‘mammary mafia’ breastfeeding mob whose aim is to cause unnecessary guilt and misery by trying to make everyone breastfeed.

Of course, aside from clever marketing by the infant formula manufacturers that subtly undermines breastfeeding while pretending to support it, there are many other reasons why women turn to formula: breastfeeding problems that can’t be resolved, poor advice, lack of support, medical problems of mother or baby and, increasingly, the hurdle of returning to paid work.

Trying to combine breastfeeding and paid work seems to be particularly challenging in China where the rapidly increasing number of women returning to the paid workforce is reported as being a major reason for the big increase in the use of infant formula.

 But, apart from breastfeeding problems and difficulties combining paid work and breastfeeding, many Chinese mothers, who once would have breastfed as a matter of course, now believe that formula is not only essential for their babies' health and well-being but that certain brands/types of formula will make their babies healthier and smarter and give them a better start in life.

Who could resist this?


China has a huge potential market for infant formula and, unlike Australia, China has no restrictions on the promotion of infant formula. I’ve visited China several times and infant formula is widely advertised in print media and on screens where advertisements for baby milk run freely around the clock.

In Australia we have a voluntary agreement that baby-food manufacturers will promote and market their products ethically according to the Manufacturers and Importers Agreement of the Australian Marketing in Australia of Infant Formulas (APMAIF), a voluntary code, for the first six months.

To read the code go to:


Part of the code states that formula should not be advertised and sold on the strength of its ingredients; for example, that formula Y is ‘organic’ and thus ‘healthier’, formula X has long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (DHA) that will make your baby brighter, formula Z has something that will make your baby’s vision better, and so on. This includes false messages of hope in labelling as in promising to make babies sleep better, cry less and improve their constipation (a problem almost certainly caused by formula in the first place).

What's the hidden ingredient?


                                    Why an advertising restriction?

If babies are not breastfed, infant formula is their only food source for those first six months, sometimes longer, so it is crucial that all formula is safe and provides what babies need.

Any safe ingredient that has a proven essential benefit, for example protein, lactose, fat, Vitamin C, D, E, K etc,  must be in all brands of formula. Ethically, there cannot be grades of formula - good, better, best - as this would risk the health of some babies.

To ensure this, there is an Infant Formula Standard (Food Standards Australia/New Zealand) which consists of an acceptable range of macronutrients and micronutrients.

Because breastmilk analysis shows that the content of breastmilk varies considerably between individual women who all have healthy, thriving babies, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact amount of most of the individual ingredients that are added to formula, for example, iron, vitamin D, lactose.

It is left up to the manufacturers to use what they think is a fair thing providing it falls within the range set down by the Standard.

As long as the added ingredients are within the range, there is no evidence that more or less of any added ingredient is superior thus it is misleading for manufacturers to claim that their brand is superior because of its iron content. Or its lactose content...and so on.

While babies may show a preference for one brand/type of formula, in terms of health, growth and development - despite claims to the contrary - there. is. no. best. formula.
This includes organic, goat’s milk, soy or any other clever idea a particular manufacturer might come up with. Unless a baby has a diagnosed medical condition (for example, phenylketonuria) that requires a specialist formula, parents are best off buying according to a price advantage. 

 The advertising of infant formula, at least in the first six months, is supposed to be factual and objective. In practice the line between promotion and factual information is very thin.

For example, it is claimed by manufacturers that additions of particular ingredients in their formulas such as nucleotides, long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and probiotic bifidus (sourced from plant yeast, fish oil, egg yolk, lipid, fungus and marine algae) aid digestion, help brains and eyes, support immune systems and play an important part in the development of baby's intestines - similar claims to those made about breastmilk.
For an example of unethical advertising of this nature go to:

 Unlike the naturally-occurring components in breastmilk that have scientific evidence of benefits, there is no proof that the optional added ingredients in infant formula are essential or even beneficial, a reason they are not found in all formula. The best that can be said is that, hopefully, they are all safe.
It’s worthwhile bearing in mind that formula is a continual process of experimentation and that it's largely thanks to breastfeeding researchers, protectors and supporters that modern formula is as safe as it is. 

There is no conclusive, independent evidence that the inert additives in formula as mentioned above, work in similar ways to the complex variety of nutrient and active immunological factors in breastmilk.
In the case of breastmilk (a non-profit product), claims of superiority and benefits are based on decades of conclusive scientific evidence by scientists who have no vested financial interests.

The optional addition of plant yeast, fish oil, egg yolk, lipid, fungus and marine algae in formula make it more expensive and more attractive to parents who naturally want the best for their babies.
Advertising these additives using words like ‘caring’, ‘friendly’, ‘natural’, ‘gentle’, ‘supporting’ particularly targets mothers who have had painful breastfeeding experiences by reassuring them their formula is similar to breastmilk. While formula does the job and is a safe substitute for breastmilk, it is misleading and mischievous for manufacturers to strongly imply that their product is the same.


The sneakiest promotion of formula is the exploitation of the normal anxieties that beset parents, particularly first-time parents, most notably distressed vulnerable mothers who have had upsetting breastfeeding experiences.

Claims about the superiority of organic formula, goats milk formula, premium, gold label and so on have no scientific evidence to support their claims.

A tiny number of babies with rare conditions, for example phenylketonuria and galactosaemia do need highly specialised formula to survive but the range of 'specialised' formulas aimed at healthy babies such as the fifty per cent of normal babies who regurgitate, 'crying' babies, 'constipated' babies, 'colicky' babies and babies who 'won't sleep' are all about marketing rather than health or nutrition, the implication being that it is possible to tweak formula to cater for specific normal baby conundrums that parents find distressing.

This subtly undermines breastmilk, which can't be tweaked in this manner, and gives mothers the impression that a particular brand or type of formula will not only solve their problem but - as an added bonus -  will make their babies smarter by 'supporting' their immunity and brain development.

Note that at one time some brands of formula were promoted as ‘boosting’ immunity and brain development. After complaints by researchers, health professionals and consumers that there was no proof to support this claim, the word 'boost' has been removed from formula advertising and replaced by 'support'.


What's the hidden ingredient?


The Australian voluntary agreement on the promotion of formula ends after the first six months when unrestricted advertising for formula designed for babies over six months and toddler formula is given the nod.

Thus 'Follow-On' formula and 'Toddler' formula, both unnecessary products packaged in identical ways to Infant formula, are used as marketing tools and manufacturers have open slather to promote them however they feel inclined.

 Babies don’t need a different formula during the second six months, a time when they are eating food and learning to drink from cups. After the first year, toddlers rarely need formula as at this age they are well able to drink milk from a cup and eat normal meals.

Toddler formula, as advertised on free-to-air TV, parenting websites and magazines, featuring pictures of two and three-year-old toddlers guzzling bottles of ‘toddler’ formula ‘in order to get all their nutrition’, plays into parental concerns about toddler eating, a time when picky eating is normal.


Or this...?

In the past, picky-eating toddlers – about fifty percent of all healthy toddlers - survived very well without bottles of processed ‘formula’.

Filling toddlers up with bottles of formula makes their picky eating worse as they are never hungry. Endless bottles of formula, especially when taken to bed, is a big reason for the unacceptable high rate of dental decay in the under-fives (about thirty percent).

The more manufacturers can convince parents that their products are required for the first two years, or even longer, the more dependent parents become on them and the bigger the returns.


Infant formula has a place but the recent dramatic decline of breastfeeding in China following the feverish move to infant formula - not just for the first six to twelve months but for the first three years -  is gobsmacking. Even more gobsmacking is that it seems to be completely accepted as the norm for most babies, and an ever-increasing number of two and three-year-old children, to be getting their nutrition via a liquid manufactured in factories.

 Perplexingly, it appears that despite big efforts to promote and support breastfeeding in the last thirty years, increasing numbers of parents, dairy farmers, formula manufacturers, salespeople and even health professionals seem to genuinely believe that formula is just as good - or even better - than human milk. And that baby-food manufacturers are caring, ethical folk on the side of mothers and babies, while breastfeeding promoters and supporters are a bunch of old cranks whose main aim is to try to make mothers feel as miserable and guilty as possible


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