Parents want to do the best for their babies, which is why – when it comes to formula milk – many stretch their budgets to pay for the most expensive brand.
But according to a new investigation by Channel 4′s Dispatches, the only significant difference between supermarket-own formulas and costly alternatives is clever marketing.
Shel Banks, an infant feeding specialist who has advised the NHS, told the programme that formula milks available on shelves are “all nutritionally equivalent”.
“There are very clear European Standard Guidelines on the maximum and minimum levels of everything – the proteins, the fats, the carbohydrates – there’s nothing to choose between them in terms of nutrition at all,” she said. “You can start with the least expensive or you can start with the most expensive.”
Here are four questions the show answered for us.
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What’s The Difference In Prices Of Formula Milks?
The show uncovered huge differences in prices. Researchers found you can feed a baby for six months with Sainsbury’s own-brand ‘Little Ones’ formula milk for £175.99.
In contrast, spending the same amount of money on big brands will last you half as long. The results found:
:: SMA Pro First Formula – £175.99 buys three and a half months of formula.
:: Aptamil Profutura Stage 1 – £175.99 bus two and a half months of formula.
The researchers also highlighted how buying pre-mixed bottles of formula is more expensive than powder. Feeding a baby for six months using Aptamil Profutura pre-made milk would cost £789.31, they concluded.
The show spoke to dozens of parents about their experiences of formula, with one saying: “Sometimes you think if you pay more, you’re doing the best for your child.”
What About The ‘Extra Ingredients’ Used By Expensive Brands?
The show highlighted that the “extra ingredients” listed on the packaging of some brands – such as additional omega 3 or vitamin D – encouraged parents to spend more.
But Banks said: “These different ingredients that the different companies add in are trying to get us to buy theirs over somebody else’s.
“But the long and short of it is, if there was a benefit that was actually proven by independent researchers to actually be beneficial to babies, then they would all have to add it by law.”
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Does The NHS Recommend Expensive Brands?
Several mums on the show said their midwives or paediatricians had recommended Aptamil – one of the most expensive brands – but the NHS is not supposed to recommend one brand over the other.
Consultant neonatologist Dr Laura De Rooy said some healthcare professionals may have been through training events or training days that were sponsored by formula milk companies. “All those training days are not necessarily providing those healthcare professionals with unbiased information,” she said.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says doctors and medical organisations should not accept gifts, money or sponsorship from formula companies. But Dispatches conducted the largest ever analysis of formula influence within the NHS and found that since 2014, almost a third of clinical commissioning groups in England had recorded a breach of the WHO guidance. Five out of the seven local health boards in Wales had also recorded such breaches.
What Do The Brands And The NHS Say In Response?
The British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA), which represents the formula milk industry, told Dispatches that different formulas have “varying levels of ingredients” and manufacturers can add ingredients “beyond the legal minimum requirements”. The BSNA added that “many factors go into determining the price.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told the show: “Parents have a right to accurate, unbiased advice from healthcare professionals.”
The Great Formula Milk Scandal: Channel 4 Dispatches, is on Monday 18 March, Channel 4 at 8pm.