by Marion Nestle

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Jul 29 2010

Breastfeeding in the news

The Berkeley Media Studies Group has just released a “Framing Brief” with “how-to” advice for breastfeeding advocates.  The Brief argues that babies’ health is not a sufficient reason to get moms to breastfeed.

Instead, advocates need to help create environments that support breastfeeding.

This  and a previous report on breastfeeding issues, “Talking about Breastfeeding,” were commissioned by the California WIC Association with support from The California Endowment.

That these reports come none too soon is evident from a recent commentary that the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (“the Code”) has become ineffectual.

The Code is an international agreement about what infant formula companies can and cannot ethically do to promote their products, based on substantial research that infant formula marketing undermines breastfeeding.

According to the study in the Archives of Diseases of Children, the Code has become

mired by a series of alleged violations and boycotts, which are counter productive to the code’s goal….[These include an] unrelenting series of disputes, predominantly relating to alleged violations of the code, which have provoked high profile acrimonious exchanges, boycotts and legal proceedings…[leading] to an atmosphere of mistrust that has now become embedded between key agencies.

The author focuses on disputes between the non-governmental group Baby Milk Action and infant formula manufacturer Nestlé (no relation).  He recommends that an  “ombudsman” or some other independent body be given authority “to arbitrate and ensure that actions taken by respective parties are in keeping with the spirit of the code.”

This is not a bad idea—if the body is truly independent. Take a look at the Baby Milk Action website and judge for yourself whether you think the group makes a compelling case for Code violations.  Some of them seem pretty obvious to me.

As I recount in Food Politics, infant formula companies have a long pre-Code history of putting sales before infant health.  Almost everyone I know thinks the situation has improved post-Code, but not nearly enough.

As I explain in What to Eat, formula companies have a business-model problem: there are only so many infants born each year and they only use formula for a limited time.

The companies only have two choices for growth: recruit more babies onto formula or extend the period of formula feeding.  The first strategy was well documented pre-Code and continues to be documented.  The second is illustrated by the now withdrawn product, chocolate toddler formula Enfagrow (see previous posts).

Breastfeeding advocates: read the new reports and get busy!

Update, July 31: Patty Rundall of Baby Milk Action has written a rebuttal to the commentary.  Other ideas?  You can forward them to her at prundall@babymilkaction.org.

Jun 9 2010

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.

Dec 14 2009

FTC Hearing on Kids’ marketing: a preview

The FTC forum on food marketing to kids takes place tomorrow, December 15.  Recall that the industry-sponsored Children’s Food and Beverage Initiative says the industry doesn’t need regulation, as its self-regulation policies are working just fine.

The research, alas, says otherwise.  According to a report released today, self-regulation is a joke.  An independent investigation of industry marketing-to-kids practices, by Dale Kunkel and his colleagues from the University of Arizona, concludes:

  • Most ads for foods produced by self-regulating companies are for junk foods
  • Ads for healthy foods are virtually non-existent
  • Licensed cartoon characters are increasingly used to market junk foods to kids
  • At least a quarter of junk food ads come from companies that do not self-regulate
  • Improvements are negligible

Senator Tom Harkin, who has been introducing legislation to restrict children’s food advertising, says he’s disappointed:

The food industry vowed to limit the amount of advertising dollars spent to promote unhealthy foods to children, and focus more on nutritious items.  That’s why I am so discouraged by this report out today.  When private interests work against the public good, government is obliged to act. We need to examine this issue more closely and figure what needs to be done to achieve balance on the airwaves so that we can improve the health and wellness of our children.

Jeffrey Chester, of the Center for Digital Democracy, points out that he, Kathryn Montgomery of the Center for Communications at American University, and Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, have been studying the way food companies advertise on the Internet.  Kathryn Montgomery will be presenting their conclusions from a series of papers examining digital advertising, along with some more recent examples of food marketing to kids in action.

The food industry’s job is to sell more food, not less.  Because restrictions on advertising are not in industry’s best interest, it is unreasonable to expect self-regulation to work.  That is why we need government to get in there and establish some checks and balances.  The forum should be interesting.  I’m hoping it will lead to FTC action.  Maybe it will even get some of Harkin’s colleagues to do some real work on this issue.  Fingers crossed!

Update, December 15: Here’s what The FTC released at the forum – standards for the kinds of products that food companies can market to children.  These look good but are voluntary. Good enough? I don’t think so.  And here’s a report on what happened.

Apr 13 2009

Busy weekend: the Obama’s First Puppy and Fixing the FDA

In case you were wondering about my thoughts on what the Obamas should be feeding their new First Puppy, I did an interview with Obama Foodorama on that very topic: “The Obamas get a new puppy and policy issues get unleashed.”

And for my latest column in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Full plate for Obama’s new FDA administrator,” I deal with the question of what the new FDA Commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, needs to do to fix the agency’s problems. She will need all the support we can give her.

Oct 8 2008

Campbell’s v. Progresso, continued

I’m fascinated by the “Soup Wars” (see previous post).  The New York Times has a full-page ad today from Progresso: “Campbell’s has 95 soups made with MSG.  Progresso has 26 delicious soups with no MSG (and more to come).” Then it adds in small print, “Except that which occurs naturally in yeast extract and vegetable proteins.”   I thought people considered high fructose corn syrup to be the new trans fat (get rid of it!), but maybe it’s MSG?

Pity the poor makers of canned soups.  Canning blands out the taste so they add grams of salt to cover the blandness.  But less salt is healthier, so the companies add MSG (monosodium glutamate) instead.

Because MSG is the sodium salt of glutamate, a normal amino acid constituent of body proteins, it ought to be safe but health concerns about it go on and on (Wikipedia has a quick review).  Lots of people tell me they are sensitive to it and that MSG gives them headaches or makes them dizzy.  The research on MSG is so inconsistent that I can’t make head or tail of it.  My guess is that we will be hearing a lot more about MSG, especially with Campbell’s and Progresso facing off about which soups use less.  Stay tuned.

And here’s an account of what’s going on with this.

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Oct 2 2008

What’s up with those Campbell’s Soup ads?

For the past two Wednesdays, I’ve clipped full page Campbell’s Soup ads attacking Progresso soups for containing MSG (mono-sodium glutamate) and Datem (di-acetyl tartaric ester of monoglyceride) whereas the ads say Campbell’s Select Harvest soups only have “Real ingredients. Real taste.”  In February this year, Campbell’s announced it was cutting down on the salt, a good thing given that a can typically contains two full grams of sodium if you eat the whole thing, and many of the company’s soups still do.  The Select Harvest soups cut that down by half.    But why the attack on Progresso (owned by Betty Crocker/Pillsbury/Diagio)Brandweek says it’s about sales competition.  Maybe Progresso soups taste better?  Does anyone know the story on this?

Jun 12 2008

Does “green” make it healthy?

Thanks to Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group for sending me her group’s latest policy “framing” brief, Food Marketers Greenwash Junk Food.

Sep 3 2007

FTC Wants Info From These Companies!

Margo Wootan from Center for Science in the Public Interest and Lori Dorfman from the Berkeley Media Studies Group send the latest request from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC is asking food companies to say how much money they spend on marketing to kids and for a bunch of other information. And now here is the list of companies that have to provide that information. What is so interesting about this list is that it is not only aimed at Kraft, PepsiCo, and other such makers of junk foods but also at Boskovich, Grimmway, and other vegetable companies that put SpongeBob SquarePants and other such cartoon characters on their product labels. It will be interesting to see how much money goes into marketing carrots as compared to breakfast cereals or junky snack foods. Stay tuned.