Friday, June 05, 2009

Martek profits boosted by formula company bogus claims

Martek, the company that produces Long Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids, from algae for adding to formula is doing well for itself.

The BioHealth Investor site reports "its fiscal 2009 second-quarter profit rose by 20 percent"

Why such demand for LCPUFAs? The report notes: "Omega-3 fatty acids are believed to play an important role in brain and eye development."

True, as far as it goes. Adding processed LCPUFAs to formula, a different environment to breastmilk, where human LCPUFAs naturally occur, is not found to provide any benefit.

The independent and respected Cochrane Library reviewed the evidence and concluded:

"It has been suggested that low levels of long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA) found in formula milk may contribute to lower IQ levels and vision skills in term infants. Some milk formulas with added LCPUFA are commercially available. This review found that feeding term infants with milk formula enriched with LCPUFA had no proven benefit regarding vision, cognition or physical growth."

Of course, the facts do not prevent Nestlé claiming its formula with LCPUFAs contains 'brain building blocks' or UK formula companies claiming they benefit brain and eye development. The companies do not follow the marketing requirements adopted by the World Health Assembly unless forced to do so.

This need not worry investors however. As Hambrecht & Quist said when it strongly recommended investors to buy shares in Martek Biosciences in the 1990s when it launched its Formulaid LCPUFA additive:

"The history of infant formula has shown that virtually all similar examples have led to wide-scale introduction of such additives into infant formula, even if there was no evidence that the additives were important. Infant formula is currently a commodity market with all products being almost identical and marketers competing intensely to differentiate their product. Even if Formulaid had no benefit we think that it would be widely incorporated into most formulas as a marketing tool and to allow companies to promote their formula as 'closest to human milk.'"

The question that parents need answered is whether it is worth spending more on formula that contains LCPUFAs. We have to direct parents to their health worker for information. However, as the World Health Assembly marketing requirements are not enforced in many countries, we know that health workers are not only misled by companies, but bombarded with gifts and hospitality to influence their views of the companies and their claims.

The official UK Department of Health line is that all formulas have to comply with composition standards so all formulas are equally suitable. There is no requirement to add LCPUFAs as there is not proven benefit from adding them. They are, however, believed to be safe.

The formula marketing regulations in the UK allow companies to add new ingredients to formula without proving their benefit or even safety: all they have to do is submit a copy of the label they plan to use to the Food Standards Agency.

This means that we are seeing what some have described as mass uncontrolled trials on populations of babies. While some parents may be persuaded to use formulas with LCPUFAs just in case, there is also the possibility that there may be unknown risks. In the US, a freedom of information request found that the Food and Drug Administration had registered reports from parents who believed their babies had had an adverse reaction to these ingredients. See:

Formula is a nutritional medicine and, like any medicine, is intended for specific cases where it is needed. If it can be avoided, then the known health risks and possible unknown ones can also be avoided. This common sense approach is lost in the hype around formula - hype which is intended to make formula use seem to be a simple question of lifestyle so as to boost sales and profits for companies such as Martek.

It is a mother's right to decide how to feed her child and no-one should try to make her feel guilty for her decision: there are many factors involved.

It is not my purpose in pointing out what companies hide to make mothers feel guilty, but to shame our politicians for allowing companies to make bogus claims. My purpose is to defend a mother's right to make an informed decision. If she decides to use formula afterwards in any case, a decision based on facts rather than misinformation should be empowering.

While we have to be aware that some mothers feel pressured to breastfeed and demonised if they decide not to (or have no choice), I think it is also wrong and patronising to believe or argue that information should be kept hidden.

Those that use formula require better information: independent, objective information from health workers that have not been targeted by companies seeking to increase sales.


Valerie W. McClain said...

Mike, I see the problem slightly differently. The claims that Martek is making are based on human milk research that was funded by the infant formula industry. DHA research in the USA was mostly funded by Martek and Mead Johnson. There was various foundations that did research on DHA but those foundations received funding from Mead Johnson and/or Martek. This was back in the late1980's and early 1990's. Breastfeeding advocates believed that these studies proved the value of human milk/breastfeeding. But the reseach's main thrust was to create and imitate a human milk component that would be placed in artificial baby milks. The backbone of human milk research is to create, imitate, and even (US government publication) make an infant formula better than human milk. The belief that we can create/genetically engineer a component and make it identical or better than the human milk component is the crux of the problem. Thus human milk research and its researchers are economically ensnared by the infant formula industry. Critical reviews of human milk research by breastfeeding advocates overlook the funding problem (if they even notice it). The goal to make a better formula for infants is certainly a worthy project. But that goal is predicated on the belief that there are a number of women who would make the choice to not breastfeed. But the question should be how much of this choice is based on PR/media manipulation?
Is a safe infant formula even feasible? Martek Bioscience began as a spin-off company from Martin Marietta that was involved in the US space program. The question of feeding humans in space is a far different problem than safely feeding the human infant. What we are seeing is a food technology created for space travel being used in an industry that is not well regulated. This need for technology is based on the belief that "man" can imitate human milk components and make a better infant formula. To question the basis of their claims, might be considered by some a questioning of human milk research and human milk researchers. Valerie W. McClain, IBCLC

Unknown said...

As a children's nurse, who has seen many babies suffer terribly from infections such as gastro-enteritis, and ear infections, due to NOT having the protection of breast milk via its vital antibodies, not to mention the fact that certain childhood cancers and juvenile diabetese (a devastating disease that can potentially BLIND a child) are more common in children who have never been breast fed, - I do believe that BABIES have rights as well as parents with regard to feeding, as they are THEY ones who suffer due to artificial feeding. There is a WORLD of difference between mothers who have geuine difficulties and HAVE to give up breast feeding and mothers who are perfectly capable of breast feeding, and are lucky enought to have plenty of milk, and yet REFUSE to even TRY to breast feed, because they "cannot be bothered". Parents who REFUSE to TRY to breast feed, DESPITE being informed about the importance for their child are surely being as selfish as parents who insist on smoking around their child, or while pregnant, despite knowing the risks to the baby.
Its strange that its perfectly acceptable to speak out about the dangers of smoking, and the importance of healthy eating, - yet woe betide any poor soul who DARES speak out about the risks of formula feeding. Many selfless, dedicated volunteers who give their time and hard work because they passionately care about protecting babies' and mothers' (breast feeding being much healthier for the mother,also) are berated for "making mothers feel guilty", with the consequence that many people are almost frightened to speak out about the importance of breast feeding and the risks of artificial feeding, because of this obsessive fear about "making mothers feel guilty" which we DON'T have when it comes to other health advice. You never see an article which says "its bad for your baby to smoke while pregnant, but don't feel guilty if you do", - yet we always read that sort of message when it comes to breast feeding advice. It seems very UNFAIR that, while many poor Mums, struggle against all odds and problems to breast feed their babies because they are desperate to do what is best for them, OTHER Mothers who don't want to even attempt to breast feed, DESPITE knowing about the importance to their babies, complain about having "too much milk" that they want to "get rid of".
PLEASE don't compare mothers who give up breast feeding due to genuine difficulties, with mothers who REFUSE to breast feed for self-centred reasons, - there is no comparison. I feel very strongly, having expressed milk for premature, and low birth weight babies, after suffering two late miscarriages, and being informed that some of the parents refused to express their milk, despite being told their babies could suffer as a result of them not doing so.