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Maybe Food: Why What We're Feeding Babies Is Iffy at Best

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by James Gormley -

About 60 percent of the brain/neurologic-boosting effects of breast milk are due to the concentration of omega-3 DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and arachidonic acid (AA).

Despite the demonstrated advantages of breastfeeding vs. standard-formula-feeding, James W. Anderson, M.D., told me way back in 1999 that, in the U.S., "The DHA content in breast milk has gone down 67 percent in the last 60 years. The DHA levels in the breast milk of American women is 50 percent less than those of European women, and about 66 percent less than those of Japanese women."

Studies have also shown that infants fed formula supplemented with DHA and AA exhibited: improved mental development; better visual acuity; and significantly lower blood pressure at age six (which may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease later in life).”

Although the United Nations' World Health Organization (WHO) issued a report in 1994 calling for the inclusion of DHA in all infant formulas, it took seven years for the U.S. FDA to allow DHA and arcahidonic acid. And the situation was not much better internationally.

On September 2004, I testified before Codex’ Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses (CCNFSDU) at the FDA headquarters, during which I argued that while DHA was listed as an “optional component” for infant formula it should be a required ingredient. I, and others, also pointed to other problems with what was allowed in infant formula around the world, such as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and very low-quality fats.

As to why HFCS would have ever been allowed in baby formula, as usual follow the money. In 2008, the Corn Growers Association was said to have spent $20 to 30 million on an 18-month public (dis)service ad campaign targeting mothers with the message that high-fructose corn syrup is just fine for toddlers and children.

While it appears that some headway has been made on infant formula, both here in the U.S. and internationally (e.g., high-fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated fats are no longer commonly found, or at least not labeled as such), serious problems still exist.

My recent trip to the infant-formula aisle was somewhat of an eye-opener for me. Apparently, “corn syrup solids” is the first or second ingredient in most infant formula and saturated-fat-packed palm oil (50% saturated fat) and coconut oil (90% saturated fat) are still major ingredients.

Unfortunately, challenges to babies’ health are not limited to infant formula, since sweetened juices are widely used in place of, or in alternation with, formula. Not a good thing.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Nutrition Committee on Nutrition (1999-2000), “Historically, fruit juice was recommended by pediatricians as a source of vitamin C and an extra source of water for healthy infants.” According to the Academy, the facts however are these:

1.) Fruit juice offers no nutritional benefit for infants younger than 6 months.

2.) Fruit juice offers no nutritional benefits over whole fruit for infants older than 6 months and children.

3.) Fruit drinks are not nutritionally equivalent to fruit juice.

4.) Excessive juice consumption may be associated with diarrhea, flatulence, abdominal distention, and tooth decay.

As daunting as are the problems associated with the ubiquity of unhealthful choices for infants, toddlers and very young children, we have a backdrop of global obesity that has more than doubled since 1980, according to the WHO, which also notes that over 40 million children under age 5 were overweight in 2010, a number which I think is extremely conservative.

As a global natural products industry, we can feel just pride in having steered over 54 of the world’s governments to require folic acid fortification, which has contributed to thousands fewer babies being born with devastating neural tube defects. We can also point to the inclusion of DHA and AA in many infant formulas around the world, which has helped the cognitive and visual development of so many children.

But there is much work to do on behalf of the babies of future generations. Natural ingredient makers can make higher quality ingredients a more attractive option for makers of formula and all of the various fortified foods and beverages for the little ones.

One approach to making natural-source ingredients more desirable is to work with existing finished product partners in developing and engaging a committed customer base of consumer activists, potentially via organizations that focus on infant and toddler development, such as (but not limited to) ZERO TO THREE (http://www.zerotothree.org), who can spearhead petition drives and letter-writing campaigns directed to the big formula and baby-food manufacturers (perhaps through such platforms as Change.org (http://www.change.org/).

Because once the “bad stuff” becomes a public relations’ liability and a market negative, formula makers may well be poised to rapidly reformulate the offending products and to avidly consider the advantages of your premium, optimal nutritional ingredient or pre-mix.

Look what happened to non-recycled paper and BPA---they’re heading the way of the Dodo bird.

Looks like it’s time for the infant food giants to evolve. 

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