Nestle, the leading global consumer goods company, has come under scrutiny for its practices regarding sugar content in infant milk and cereal products sold in economically disadvantaged regions. 

A recent report by Public Eye, an investigative organisation based in Switzerland, in collaboration with the International Baby Food Action Network, has shed light on the presence of added sugars, such as sucrose and honey, in Nestle’s baby food products marketed in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The Guardian, referencing data provided by Public Eye and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), presented findings from its examination of 115 products retailed by Nestlé in key markets across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The investigation primarily focused on products under Nestle’s Cerelac and Nido brands, aiming to shed light on the nutritional composition and practices employed by multinational corporations in these regions.

This revelation has sparked concerns about the potential health implications for infants and young children, especially in regions where obesity rates are on the rise. 

Nestle’s Sugar Practices in Infant Products

Public Eye’s investigation revealed that Nestle incorporates added sugar in its baby-food products marketed in low- and middle-income countries, despite international guidelines advocating against such practices. 

Samples of Nido, a follow-up milk formula, and Cerelac, a cereal for children aged between six months and two years, showed the presence of sucrose or honey. This contrasts with Nestlé’s offerings in European markets, where formulas for young children typically contain no added sugar.

According to WHO guidelines for the European region, foods intended for children under 3 years should not contain any added sugars or sweetening agents. Although specific guidance has not been formulated for other regions, researchers assert that the European recommendations are applicable globally.

Similarly, the UK advises against the consumption of foods with added sugars for children under four due to associated risks such as weight gain and tooth decay. In alignment with this, the US government guidelines advocate for the avoidance of foods and beverages with added sugars for individuals younger than two years old.

Dr Nigel Rollins from the World Health Organization (WHO) criticised these findings, emphasising the importance of consistent standards in infant nutrition. The discrepancy in sugar content between regions highlights a concerning double standard that raises questions about Nestlé’s commitment to global health equity.

According to Dr. Rollins, “a double standard […] that can’t be justified.” Furthermore, the inclusion of added sugars in products intended for young children contradicts recommendations from health authorities, such as the WHO and the UK government, which advise against sugar consumption for children under three and four, respectively.

Why Are These Contradictions Arising?

Public Eye’s report also shed light on the global sales and market dynamics of Nestle’s infant products, revealing staggering figures and disproportionate sales in low- and middle-income countries. 

Euromonitor International data indicated global retail sales of above $1 billion for Cerelac, with significant shares attributed to countries like Brazil and India. The popularity of these products in regions with high rates of childhood malnutrition and obesity underscores the complex interplay between market forces, corporate responsibility, and public health.

The disparity in sales figures between affluent and economically disadvantaged regions raises ethical concerns about the targeting of vulnerable populations by multinational corporations. 

Despite efforts to reduce added sugar content in some products, Nestle’s continued marketing and sale of sugary infant foods in regions where childhood obesity rates are escalating highlights the need for more stringent regulations and ethical business practices to safeguard the health and well-being of children worldwide.

A spokesperson for Nestle affirmed the company’s commitment to the nutritional quality of their early childhood products, stating, “We believe in the nutritional quality of our products for early childhood and prioritise using high-quality ingredients adapted to the growth and development of children.” 

In addressing concerns raised by Public Eye’s report, the spokesperson highlighted Nestlé’s adherence to regulations and standards within the highly regulated category of baby food. 

She emphasised their compliance with both local regulations and international standards, including labelling requirements and thresholds on carbohydrate content encompassing sugars, with total sugars in products, including those from honey, being declared.

Moreover, the spokesperson noted that variations in recipes are influenced by factors such as regulation and the availability of local ingredients. Regarding efforts to address sugar content, she highlighted the company’s global initiatives, stating that Nestle has reduced the total amount of added sugars in its infant cereal portfolio by 11% over the past decade. 

Nestle continues to reformulate products to further reduce added sugars. As part of these efforts, sucrose and glucose syrup are being phased out of “growing-up milk” aimed at toddlers worldwide, reflecting Nestlé’s ongoing commitment to enhancing the nutritional profile of its products.

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Impact On Childhood Obesity And Health

The presence of added sugars in infant products carries significant implications for childhood obesity and overall health outcomes, particularly in regions experiencing a rise in obesity rates among young children. 

According to the World Health Organization, the prevalence of overweight children under five has increased by nearly 23% in Africa since 2000. Globally, more than 1 billion people are living with obesity, underscoring the urgent need for preventive measures, especially during early childhood.

Laurent Gaberell, an expert from Public Eye, emphasised the need for Nestle to discontinue the practice of adding sugar to products intended for children under 3 years old worldwide. The consumption of added sugars during infancy and early childhood can contribute to weight gain and other chronic diseases later in life.

The disparities in sugar content between products sold in different regions exacerbate health inequities and underscore the importance of stricter regulations and enforcement to protect the health of vulnerable populations.

The investigation by Public Eye revealed significant regional variations in the sugar content of Nestle’s infant products, further highlighting the company’s inconsistent practices. 

For example, biscuit-flavoured cereals for babies aged six months and older contained 6g of added sugar per serving in Senegal and South Africa, while the same product sold in Switzerland had none. Examinations conducted on Cerelac products available in India revealed an average of over 2.7g of added sugar per serving. 

In Brazil, where Cerelac is marketed under the name Mucilon, two out of eight examined products were devoid of added sugar, while the remaining six contained an average of nearly 4g per serving. Similarly, in Nigeria, one of the tested products exhibited a sugar content of up to 6.8g per serving.

Meanwhile, analyses of Nido brand products, with global retail sales exceeding $1 billion, uncovered notable disparities in sugar levels. In the Philippines, toddler-targeted items were found to be free of added sugar. However, in Indonesia, Nido baby-food products, marketed as Dancow, uniformly contained approximately 2g of added sugar per 100g of product, equating to 0.8g per serving.

In Mexico, two out of the three available Nido products for toddlers contained no added sugar, whereas the third product registered 1.7g per serving. Notably, Nido Kinder 1+ products retailed in South Africa, Nigeria, and Senegal consistently contained nearly 1g of added sugar per serving, as indicated in the report.

These regional differences raise questions about Nestle’s rationale for varying sugar content based on location and the availability of local ingredients.

Dr. Arun Gupta, a pediatrician and a former member of the Prime Minister’s Council on India’s Nutrition Challenges, tells Quint FIT. To begin with, sugar is a cost-effective ingredient that helps to bulk up products.

Adding sugar would also make a child happily consume it, which in turn makes parents also happy. So, they tend to give them more of that product. The underlying strategy at play here, that I understand, is to increase sales and make profits. Speculatively, it could also be a marketing ploy to seem healthy – adding sugars, then claiming to reduce the levels,” Dr Gupta tells FIT.

Dr Gupta highlights the underlying strategy behind this practice, emphasizing that it aims to boost sales and generate profits. Moreover, there’s speculation that adding sugars might be part of a marketing tactic, where brands claim to offer healthier options by subsequently reducing sugar levels.

According to Dr. Gupta, “We don’t ask questions of these brands in developing countries. We don’t test these products. Nestle’s own website advises against added sugar and yet it’s in products sold in low-income countries. Governments in poorer countries have weak laws, or do not implement the laws properly.”

In the context of India, laws regarding infant food products are clear. The Infant Milk Substitutes, Feeding Bottles, and Infant Foods (Regulation of Production, Supply, and Distribution) Act, 1992, prohibits advertising or promoting infant milk substitutes and infant foods as equivalent to or superior to mother’s milk.

However, despite recommendations from esteemed bodies such as the Indian Academy of Pediatrics and the WHO to avoid added sugars in foods for children under two, the presence of such sugars in products persists.

Nestle has faced scrutiny for similar violations in the past,” notes Dr. Gupta. “Last year, an internal report of Nestle got leaked which clearly stated that over 60 percent of its food products were unhealthy and did not meet the health standards.”

In 2018, the Changing Markets Foundation reported that Nestle’s infant milk formulas in South Africa contained sucrose, while those in other countries did not. Similarly, variations in ingredients were noted in products sold in different regions, raising questions about consistency and compliance with health standards.

The presence of added sugars in products targeted at infants and young children, particularly in regions with limited access to healthcare and nutrition education, underscores the need for greater transparency and accountability in the food industry.

What Next?

Public Eye’s investigation into Nestle’s infant products has exposed concerning practices regarding the addition of sugar in regions where childhood obesity rates are rising. The presence of added sugars in products intended for infants and young children contradicts international guidelines and raises questions about corporate responsibility and ethical marketing practices. 

The regional disparities in sugar content observed in infant food products underscore the urgent need for stricter regulations and enhanced transparency within the food industry. Variations in sugar levels across different regions not only reflect inconsistencies in manufacturing practices but also raise concerns about the adequacy of existing regulatory frameworks. 

Such discrepancies not only pose risks to the health of vulnerable populations, particularly infants and young children but also exacerbate health inequities. Without uniform standards and vigilant oversight, multinational corporations may continue to exploit regulatory gaps to market products with higher sugar content in regions with weaker regulations, perpetuating disparities in health outcomes.

As global health concerns related to childhood obesity and chronic diseases continue to escalate, addressing these issues requires collective action from governments, health authorities, and corporations to promote healthier nutrition and safeguard the well-being of future generations.

Feature image designed by Saudamini Seth

Sources: The Quint, The Guardian, Live Mint

Find the blogger: Katyayani Joshi

This post is tagged under: nutrition, cerelac, infant food, well being, future generations, Nestle, added sugars, governments, Nido, food industry, sugar, Nigeria, young children, health inequities, multinational corporations

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