Pharmacists warn on infant formula claims

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 April, 2011, 12:00am


Many milk formula advertisements that claim the products can speed up babies' development and make them smarter are exaggerated, pharmacists warn.

The Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Hong Kong released a report yesterday that analysed health claims made by seven popular milk formula brands sold in Hong Kong and found most of them had no scientific basis.

'You'll hear most milk formula brands saying they contain AA and DHA, which help babies' brain development. But such effects are not proven by authoritative studies,' said society vice-president William Chui Chun-ming, referring to fatty acids found in the body and the brain.

'Manufacturers are not doing clinical studies because there are no regulations on the messages they give out.' He said such studies were considered too time-consuming for producers trying to stay competitive.

Society president Ewan So Yiu-wah said all the brands were more or less the same in terms of their ingredients and nutritional value, as they followed the standards set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission under the World Health Organisation.

Abbott, for example, claims its milk formula contains phospholipids, an element in brain development which it says enhances children's creativity. But Chui said that although phospholipids had been found to improve students' memories, any benefits to babies have not been documented in clinical studies.

'They even call it 'PhD', which is not a medical abbreviation. They just wanted to make it sound like doctor of philosophy,' he said. 'Yes, our brains do need it, but it's not a case of the more the better.' Phospholipids were found in egg yolks and were an important element of the body's cell structures, Chui said.

Additives to ease constipation in babies are another popular selling point used in the advertisements of brands such as Wyeth and Mead Johnson. The additives include soluble dietary fibres, which are advertised as beneficial to babies' intestinal health and immune systems.

But again, the effects of these additives are unproven. 'One study has proven that soluble dietary fibres can improve constipation in the elderly, but that doesn't mean it can be applied in babies,' Chui said.

Probiotics and prebiotics are advertised as the 'P2 system' by some companies, but any beneficial effects on babies are not documented.

The government is drafting a code of practice for manufacturers and suppliers to discourage misleading advertising, but it would not have the force of law.

Without commenting directly on the criticism, Wyeth's parent company Pfizer said it was committed to producing the best baby formula backed by scientific research. The other companies were unavailable for comment yesterday.

The society said it supported the code and suggested a committee of dietitians, pharmacists and pediatricians be set up to screen advertisements. The Consumer Council also welcomed the code, saying it was preparing its own study on the problem to educate consumers.