Why 'growing-up milk' for children leaves a sour taste


SECOND OPINION:I watched recent TV ads for a particular brand of “growing-up milk” with disbelief. In the spirit of action research I visited a local supermarket and found that all formula milk producers now make a synthesised milk product for children up to three years of age. These are made from food derivatives such as demineralised whey, vegetable oils and emulsifiers.

Is giving a fully weaned child a glass of cow or goat milk, which humans have been drinking for thousands of years, no longer a healthy option? The fancy packaging and beautiful children on the cartons of growing-up milk will persuade many parents that children need this food substitute.

They do not. A 100g serving of plain mashed potato, costing a few cent, contains more protein, more energy, twice as much fibre, plenty of vitamins and minerals, and 20 times less fat than a serving of growing-up milk.

Food industry tactics

Growing-up milk is just one example of the food industry persuading people to buy food products they don’t need. A recent bulletin of the World Health Organisation (WHO) notes that food companies are finding new ways of selling their products in an environment where there is already twice as much food available as anyone could possibly eat.

They do this by increasing the size of food portions and creating a perverse food culture in which it is socially acceptable, indeed compulsory, to eat food at any time of the day or night, “in your hand, in your car and on the street”. Snacking all day is now the norm. As the bulletin argues, aggressive food industry tactics work extremely well, and equally aggressive new government policies are needed to combat them.

It was inevitable that products such as follow-on (for babies over six months) and growing-up milk (for toddlers up to three years) would be developed, since formula milk producers are not allowed to advertise or promote powdered milk for infants under six months of age who should be exclusively breastfed.

Breastfeeding rates

Irish breastfeeding rates are abysmally low at 46 per cent – which drops to less than a third of infants being breastfed at four weeks and to one in 10 by six months – compared with most other European countries where rates are between 80 to 95 per cent.

The Growing Up in Ireland study 2012 found that being breastfed for 13-25 weeks is associated with a 38 per cent reduction in the risk of obesity at nine years of age, and being breastfed for 26 weeks or more is associated with a 51 per cent reduction.

Slower growth rates in breastfed children are largely attributable to the difference in the composition of human breast milk compared with synthesised formula food. It follows that children fed synthesised milk products until they are three years of age are likely to become overweight.

New developments will ensure children grow at a healthy rate. From January 2013 the HSE will begin using the UK-WHO growth charts that are benchmarked against optimal growth of breastfed children only.

Weight problems

As breastfed babies gain weight more slowly than their formula-fed counterparts, weight problems will be detected at a younger age, allowing for earlier intervention. Parents will no longer be told their breastfed babies are “a bit underweight”, which was the case when all babies were benchmarked against formula-fed heavier babies. Health professionals will have to encourage breastfeeding in a more assertive way or using the new charts will make it look like child development clinics don’t work all that well.

Advertising rules

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland is also about to launch the new rules on the advertising of high fats, salt and sugar (HFSS) food and drink to children. These will be published in January 2013 and come into effect in July 2013. We need to familiarise ourselves with the rules so that we can complain if necessary.

More new regulations and policies are needed. The WHO wants settings where children gather, including schools, youth clubs and health clinics, to be free from all forms of marketing of HFSS foods. At present, vending machines are completely unregulated.

In the meantime, we need to develop a healthy scepticism about food advertising, whether directed at adults or children.

Ignore the packaging, read every label and compare the nutritional values in the ingredients with those of natural foods.

Remember, advertisers want us to buy more food products than we need, not take care of our health. That’s our job.

Dr JACKY JONESis a former HSE regional manager of health promotion