Health and nutrition claims for baby milk formulas are based on weak scientific evidence and could be potentially harmful, experts have said.
In an analysis published in The BMJ, the researchers have called on regulators to ban health-related marketing claims for infant formulas.
Writing in the medical journal, Robert Boyle, a specialist in child allergy at Imperial College London, and his colleagues said the current regulations are not effective in preventing the “misleading claims” which might “carry health risks for a vulnerable population”.
The authors used examples of some brands which have claimed their infant formula can reduce the risk of developing allergy to cow’s milk proteins, while others have alleged their baby milk can foster learning ability and help soothe the symptoms of colic and constipation.
But the academics said claims like these are often unfounded and may undermine efforts to support breastfeeding and increase the risk of certain infectious diseases.
They wrote: “If these claims imply effective treatment of problems such as colic, gastro-oesophageal reflux, cow’s milk allergy, or poor weight gain, they may cause harm by delaying appropriate investigations or treatments for underlying medical problems.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends against promoting infant formula to the public but the experts said this is not legally binding and has called for a new approach.
They propose that any changes to the ingredients used in baby infant formula should require pre-market approval.
If changes in composition have been shown to have a beneficial health effect, they should be added to the Codex international food standards as per WHO guidelines so that all formula-fed infants can benefit, the experts said.
The team has also called for the bar for the scientific evidence to be “significantly higher than that currently used by manufacturers to justify their claims”.
The authors wrote: “Infants and their carers are not being adequately protected from adverse consequences of claims about infant formula.”
They added: “Global action is needed to break the current cycle of weak scientific evidence and unreliable claims and move to a new era where carers of infants are given accurate information about infant formula products in a manner that does not undermine breastfeeding.”