Food For Kids highlights: As parents navigate early childhood nutrition, industry faces ‘mommy-shaming’ traps, misconceptions about breast- and formula-feeding

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/ SDI Productions
Source: Getty/ SDI Productions

Related tags: Food for kids, Infant formula

An emerging market for lactation support products aiming to help more women hit the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months is much-needed, but also could trigger unintended consequences depending on how they are marketed and sold, according to one registered dietitian.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25% of infants are breastfed exclusively for the first six months despite research that shows most first-time mothers understand the importance of breastfeeding and intend to do it.

Among the top reasons women do not meet this benchmark is fear about producing insufficient milk – a concern reported by 40% of 532 first-time mothers surveyed by researchers at UC Davis Medical Center​ -- and one which well-intentioned emerging and established food and beverage brand strive to ease with products designed to boost production.

Ranging from supplements, teas and shakes to cookies, crackers and other snacks packed with ingredients like fenugreek, flax, dates, oats and moringa leaf, many of these products offer nursing women convenience and empowerment by helping them feel more in control of their nutrition and like they are helping their children without burdening them with the extra work of preparing special foods while simultaneously navigating other additional responsibilities that come with parenting.

A significant challenge for players in this space, however, is managing costs and offering products at a price point that is accessible – because if they are too expensive or out of reach for parents, they could harm, Kristi King, a registered pediatric dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine warned last week during the first part of FoodNavigator-USA’s Food For Kids Summit.

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[Editor’s note: If you missed our two-day, virtual Food For Kids Summit, you can still catch the event for free on demand by registering HERE​.]

“As these products become more and more available, what’s going to be important is their price point. They have to be affordable to all parents,”​ King said. “We can’t just exclude the lower socio-economic group, just because they can’t afford it. That’s not fair to them. That’s not fair to their child.”

Manufacturers in this space also must walk a fine line that encourages breastfeeding, but doesn’t shame or discourage formula-feeding.

King explained that in her work with low-income parents, she sees women who feel shamed because they are not producing enough milk for their infants and they cannot afford supplements and other products that promise to boost their production.

“That’s when I step in and say, ‘Look, fed is better. You know. Breast is best, but fed is better. So, it does not matter if we are breastfeeding or formula feeding – I just want to make sure that your child is getting nutrition,’”​ King said.

If parents can afford lactation-boosting products or want to change their diet to try and boost production, King said she is happy to work with them to see if they can increase supply – but she also wants women to know that there is no shame in formula feeding.

Tackling ‘negative perceptions’ about formula to overcome risks of malnutrition, parent-shaming

Some of the shame associated with formula feeding also stems from misperceptions about the impact of formula on babies’ health in the short and long-term – a challenge that some in the industry are working to overcome through education and product selection.

“There is misinformation and some negative perceptions out there”​ about formula, including fear that it contains too much sugar and could lead to obesity later in life or that it may contain genetically modified or other undesirable ingredients, Katina Langley, a registered dietitian and the medical science liaison for Reckitt/Meat Johnson Nutrition.

She explained during the Food For Kids panel discussion that at Mead Johnson Nutrition, infant formulas are designed to mimic or support similar outcomes to human breast milk, which naturally contains lactose as a key carbohydrate for growth and development.

As such, she said, “standard infant formula typically will contain lactose, but that should not be confused with added sugars,”​ which are in a “completely different category”​ and not what the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are referring to when they encourage caregivers to avoid giving sugar sweetened beverages to children under one year.

Similarly, she said, fomulas designed for special medical needs, such as lactose sensitivity, may contain other simple sugars or corn sugars – which are not the same as high fructose corn syrup – for ease of digestion, “but again, it’s the primary source of carbohydrate for the infant.”

What caregivers want to avoid giving infants is sucrose, which is table sugar, and could train children to gravitate towards highly sweet tastes that could be problematic later, she added.

As far as GMOs are concerned, Langley said that both the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association identify “that there is an absence of evidence of negative effects of GMOs.”

But, she added, for families who prefer non-GMO products, Mead Johnson offers Enfamil NueroPro non-GMO formula – a move that underscores the importance of offering parents products that align with their children’s needs and families’ values to ensure that children gain the nutrition they need in a format that is right for them.

What is the appropriate place for toddler milks?

Continuing to offer a range of products that support children’s nutrition as they age is also why Mead Johnson Nutrition offers toddler nutrition drinks or toddler milks, like Enfagrow, which can be used as a snack, served in place of milk or incorporated into baked good and other foods to enhance nutrition.

Toddler milks have come under fire in recent years with those speaking out against it saying they are unnecessary, can lead to obesity and do not help children develop a diverse palate and healthy diet.

Langley argues, however, they are a useful tool in the right circumstances.

“The consequence of poor nutrition during critical periods of growth and development can have lasting adverse effects, including developmental deficits. At 12 months, toddlers transition from breastmilk or formula to table food and beverages, which may mean a decline in nutrient intake if the diet is not varied. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends offering a variety of healthy foods as part of a balanced meal or snack. Some toddlers have unpredictable feeding behaviors, picky eating habits, or food refusal and risk inadequate nutrient intake and deficiencies.  Picky-eating habits can be a normal part of development but may also make it difficult for the toddler to meet nutrient goals,”​ she explained.

When this happens, toddler milks are one option to supplement children’s diet and can be used “to bridge the nutrient gaps when the diet is not varied or extra energy and nutrients are needed,”​ she added.

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