The controversy surrounding infant formula
Infant formula is an adequate substitute for breastfeeding, but it has a chequered history and remains controversial - Emma Hall investigates
All the experts now agree that breastfeeding is the best option for most mothers and babies. But it doesn’t work for everyone and infant formula is steadily improving to provide an adequate substitute. Babies reared on the bottle can be as healthy as their breastfed contemporaries – at least in the hygienic developed world.
Infant formula is now probably the world’s most regulated food, but it remains a controversial product. Improperly used, it can contribute to obesity and tooth decay in children, among other health problems. In the developing world, the effects of choosing bottle over breast can be fatal.
How infant formula began
Henri Nestlé marketed an early breast milk substitute in the US in 1867. By 1873, 500,000 boxes of Nestlé Milk Food were sold all over the world. The quest to find a perfect substitute for breast milk has continued ever since, with annual sales of baby milk in 1998 estimated at US$8 billion.
Formula milk first reached the UK in 1904 and became popular during the Second World War, when National Dried Milk was celebrated for liberating mothers from the constraints of breastfeeding so that they could help with the war effort. But, in 1939, Nestlé was exporting condensed milk to Singapore and Malaysia as ‘ideal for delicate infants’, though it was banned in the UK for causing rickets and blindness.
In a speech that would be just as relevant 60 years later, Dr Cecily Williams said, ‘Misguided propaganda on infant feeding should be punished as the most miserable form of sedition; these deaths should be regarded as murder.’
National Dried remained on sale until 1976, when it was pushed out by the new modern-style baby milks, launched in the UK as a response to a Department of Health report called ‘Present Day Practice in Infant Feeding’.
Until then, infant formula was little more than dried full-cream milk powder with a few vitamin D and C supplements thrown in.
The catalyst for change was a 1966 US Government brochure, which warned of the dangers of improperly used breast milk substitutes and created a global public health controversy.