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.

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