PHN Editorial Highlight: ‘Global trends and patterns of commercial milk-based formula sales: is an unprecedented infant and young child feeding transition underway?

To ensure children get the best start in life the World Health Organization recommends that infants are exclusively breastfed to six months of age with ongoing breastfeeding for up to two years of age and beyond. Yet worldwide the prevalence of infants exclusively breast fed to six months hovers at around 37% and has improved only marginally in recent decades.

In contrast, the study of 80 countries demonstrates that global milk-based formula sales are booming. In the five-years between 2008 and 2013 world total milk formula sales grew by 40.8% from 5.5 to 7.8kg per infant/child, a figure projected to increase to 10.8kg by 2018.

This global sales boom applies not only to infant formula (for consumption by infants aged 0-6 months) but also to follow-up (7-12 months) and toddler (13-36 months) formulas, which can displace ongoing breastfeeding if marketed and consumed inappropriately.

We describe this as indicative of a global ‘infant and young child feeding transition’ i.e. a shift from lower to higher formula diets at the population level. Although the idea of such a transition is not new, the rate and scale of change described in the study is potentially unprecedented.

Growth has been especially rapid in several industrialising countries in Asia: China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. As home to the world’s second largest infant/child population (~41 million aged 0-36 months in 2013) the most significant absolute change has been in China. Other highly-populated countries undergoing significant growth include South Africa, Iran, Turkey, Brazil and Peru.

These results are troubling because formula-fed children experience poorer health and developmental outcomes than breastfed children including an increased risk of death, pneumonia, diarrhoea, obesity and type-2 diabetes, ear infections and asthma. Formula feeding also harms mothers due to the forgone protective effects of breastfeeding against breast and ovarian cancer.

Infant and young child feeding is typically portrayed as an individual behaviour, as a matter of free parental choice. The study offers a counter-view – the observed results are likely to reflect transformations in wider social, economic and social systems that structure infant and young child feeding choices at the population level.

In this view, the global infant and young child feeding transition is driven largely by the expansion of transnational formula companies and more intensive formula marketing, the shift of labour and production out of the home (especially in Asia’s vast manufacturing centres where millions of women have become employed, often with no or limited maternity protections), and the failure of regulations and policies designed to promote, protect and support breastfeeding in these new contexts.

These findings are important for several reasons. The results raise serious concern that the rapid changes observed are not being captured in a timely manner by existing international nutrition monitoring systems.

Existing regulations intended to protect the health of children and mothers and to prevent unethical formula marketing are not working effectively. Renewed efforts towards the implementation, monitoring and enforcement of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes, including stronger accountability mechanisms for governments and industry are urgently needed.

Stronger maternity protections that enable breastfeeding (e.g. adequate maternity leave, paid lactation breaks, flexible working hours, and nursing facilities) are also urgently needed for millions of working mothers, especially in Africa and Asia.

This can only come about through greater political priority and strengthened governance mechanisms for infant and young child nutrition.

The paper, ‘Global trends and patterns of commercial milk-based formula sales: is an unprecedented infant and young child feeding transition underway?’ is published in the journal Public Health Nutrition and is freely available until 12th June 2016.
Authors: Phillip Baker, Julie Smith, Libby Salmon, Sharon Friel, George Kent, Alessandro Iellamo, JP Dadhich, Mary J Renfrew.
Funding: This analysis was unfunded. However, the lead author was employed through an Australian Research Council Discovery Project (number 130101478).

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