Functional ingredients in infant formula: Are these about health or marketing?
If you don’t have a small baby, or your baby is breastfed(and see note at end) you no doubt are missing the furor over “functional” ingredients that companies have been adding to infant formulas.
DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid) came first. As I discuss in my book, What to Eat, infant formula companies could not wait to add it. They knew they could market it on the basis of preliminary evidence associating DHA with visual and cognitive benefits in young infants. Although evidence for long term benefits is scanty, the companies also knew that they could charge higher prices formulas containing DHA.
The FDA approved the use of DHA in infant formulas on the grounds that it is safe, but did not require the companies to establish that DHA makes any difference to infant health after the first year. Because of its marketing advantage, virtually all infant formulas now contain DHA. Surprise! They also cost more.
Companies now want to add other ingredients, such as prebiotics, probiotics, lutein, lycopene, and betacarotene, which also can be marketed as healthier and at higher prices.
In response, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), has issued a report on the lack of evidence for the benefits of functional ingredients and the substantial harm they will cause to the economic viability of the WIC program, the USDA’s assistance program for low-income mothers and children.
WIC buys about half the infant formula sold in the United States each year. WIC is not an entitlement program, meaning that the number of participants is limited by available funding (a GAO report explains how this works).
The CBPP report says:
As pressure mounts to limit federal discretionary spending, it is critical to ensure that WIC not spend funds on foods with functional ingredients that do not deliver clinically significant benefits. WIC spent approximately $850 million on infant formula last year, and a recent USDA study found that more than ten percent of that spending ($91 million annually) is attributable to higher-priced formulas with functional ingredients. Under current law, the additional cost to WIC of providing foods with these ingredients is likely to grow substantially as such foods proliferate.
As the report explains, formula companies do not have to demonstrate that the added–and more expensive–ingredients do any good:
There is no mechanism within the national WIC program that requires USDA to review the research evidence on the claimed benefits of these functional ingredients or to base decisions about whether to offer foods containing such ingredients on their benefits and the specific needs of WIC participants. Currently, instead, infant formula manufacturers themselves decide whether WIC offers infant formulas with new functional ingredients, while state WIC programs decide whether WIC should offer other foods with such ingredients.
As I keep saying, functional foods (and ingredients) are about marketing, not health. If companies are going to add functional ingredients–and charge higher prices–they need to have some convincing scientific evidence to back up their claims.
Postscript: Laurie True of the California WIC program writes:
Congressman George Miller, Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, is writing the bill that reauthorizes the WIC Program this week. He should include a provision requiring independent scientific review of the efficacy of these “functional ingredients” before USDA allows them in WIC foods and infant formula.
Note: Lori Dorfman sends a Berkeley Media Studies Group issue paper on how to advocate for hospitals and workplaces to make it easier for moms to breastfeed.