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Bad formula: Problems with infant food

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Infant formula is critically valuable for babies who cannot nurse. It contains expensive ingredients and its quality cannot be evaluated easily by consumers. All these factors lead to baby formula being a frequent target for contamination, adulteration, and confusion. With formula, the result isn't just consumers not getting their money's worth; it can be malnutrition, illness, and even death for young children.


I have heard of powdered formula bound for third-world countries being cut with plaster and other white powders, although I can't confirm those rumors. But one form of contamination, originating in China, is prominent in the news today: melamine. And just as with pet food a year and a half ago, melamine contamination has reportedly led to infant deaths in China.

Melamine is an industrial chemical that contains nitrogen. The only significant food ingredient that contains nitrogen is protein, so the measure of protein in food is often based on the measure of nitrogen. By adding melamine, unscrupulous food manufacturers can give their product the artificial appearance of a high protein content and sell it at a higher price.

Ingested in large quantities, melamine causes kidney stones that lead to kidney failure. Nearly 13,000 Chinese children have been hospitalized with melamine poisoning from consuming tainted formula, and at least four have died, according to the British Medical Journal.

Inappropriate marketing

But contamination is not the only problem with infant food in the world; another is inappropriate marketing. There is an international code for infant formula marketing, which focuses mainly insisting that formula companies acknowledge that breast milk is best. Occasionally, a more outrageous situation comes up, such as a food not meant for babies being marketed as infant formula.

That's the situation with Bear Brand Coffee Creamer from Nestlé, sold in the southeast Asian country of Laos. In addition to coffee creamer, products with the Bear Brand label include infant formula and canned cows' milk. The label shows a bear cradling a baby bear as if nursing it. In a country where perhaps half of the rural population is illiterate, it is no small wonder that the coffee creamer is widely used (yes, widely) as a "breast milk substitute." There are case reports of severe malnutrition-related illnesses and deaths in young Laotian children who were fed Bear Brand Coffee Creamer instead of breast milk or infant formula. Again, the British Medical Journal has the story (hat tip to Chanpheng Lew (saosalavan) on Plurk).

If you couldn't read, would you think this product is good for children? Click image to enlarge:
Bear Brand coffee creamer: Looks like it's for infants

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