Friday, April 1, 2011

Help stop misleading health claims for children

In February I blogged about stopping a health claim on follow-on formula that says that adding a fatty acid known as DHA to formula milk helps improve babies' eyesight. The European Commission have decided to allow companies to put this on follow-on milk, but independent research has found that the link between synthesised DHA and vision has not yet been proven.

In order to stop the health claim I wrote a resolution which was approved in a close vote in the European Parliament's Environment and Public Health Committee. However, the resolution must now be adopted by a majority of MEPs when we vote next Wednesday. It's set to be extremely tight, with those on the right wing supporting the company's claim and opposing my view.

Many groups and individuals support the resolution, including organisations of paediatricians, midwives, charities including UNICEF, health NGOs, consumer groups, and individual parents and constituents, from all over the EU and beyond.

Health claims must be based on "generally accepted scientific evidence", but there is clearly still a debate within the scientific community over the link between synthesised DHA and eyesight. The claim will not be allowed on infant formula (suitable for 0-6 months) but will be allowed on follow-on formula (6 months+). It is obvious that promoting a follow-on formula with a health claim will have a direct impact on the infant formula of the same brand. In fact, research published by UNICEF UK in 2005 found that mothers do not necessarily understand the difference between infant and follow-on formula, with 60% of mothers claiming they had seen advertising for infant formula milk within the last year, even though this is banned in the UK, and 74% of mothers saying their baby started on follow-on formula between the ages 0-6 months. A health claim could encourage parents to start using follow-on formula earlier than is healthy for their children. F

Furthermore there are no studies which look at the effects of giving babies unsupplemented infant formula from birth and then supplemented follow-on formula from 6 months. As this claim will only be allowed on follow-on formula this is a crucial gap in the research. Before we assert the supposed benefits to parents we should fully investigate all possible effects of this particular additive.

This issue is clearly contentious and whilst the debate is ongoing I do not believe it is morally correct to tell parents, who are naturally anxious to provide the best nutrition possible for their children, that synthesised DHA is good for babies' vision. We should wait to see whether, after further investigation, the weight of the scientific evidence is convincing, and if that time comes then we should consider making DHA an essential ingredient in all formulas, rather than allowing it to be used as a marketing ploy for some more expensive formulas.

If you believe that no parent should be misled, and that no child deserves inferior nutrition in the most crucial stages of their development, please write to you MEPs and urge them to vote for my resolution on Wednesday.

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