Life Wellbeing Sweeter than Fanta? Baby formula sugar debate is more than a little complicated
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Sweeter than Fanta? Baby formula sugar debate is more than a little complicated

What a rush. Some milk formulas for small babies have more than eight grams of sugar per 100 mls. Photo: Getty
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Could this be true? Baby formula with double the sugar of soft drink? This was the opening line of piece out of the UK – where the claim does, in fact, stack up.

In a review of sugar content and poor labelling practices in 11 countries, Gemma Bridge, a PhD candidate at the Leeds Business School, investigated “the sugar content of 212 commercially available infant formula milk products targeted at infants under three.”

She found more than half the products contained in excess of 5g of sugar per 100ml – which is more than the Fanta orange drink sold in the UK that contains 4.2g of sugar per 100ml

In many cases, she writes, the sugar content was more than 7.5g per 100ml, which exceeds European parliament recommended levels for infants.

She writes: “For example, we found that a powdered product for infants under six months sold in France contained 8.2g of sugar per 100ml, or nearly two teaspoons, while a ready-to-drink milk formula for infants under 12 months sold in the UK contained 8.1g of sugar per 100ml.”

Inevitably, the “twice as much sugar” headline on The Conversation piece has been adopted in reports throughout Europe and Asia. We’ll get back to that, because it needs some teasing apart.

Sugar content is not regulated or disclosed

Overall, Ms Bridge’s findings “suggest that, globally, infant formula products are higher in carbohydrates, sugar and lactose than breast milk.” (Although it’s important to note that sugars are carbohydrates, and that lactose is a sugar.)

The research also focuses on the inadequate, inconsistent and unclear labelling on baby-formula packaging. Ms Bridge says that “mandatory regulation of sugar content in formula products is needed with clear FOP (front of pack) nutrition information to help consumers choose the healthy option for their infants.”

Because there aren’t any such labels.

Dr Rachel Laws, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University, told The New Daily that Australia needs similar regulation as to how much sugar should be allowed in formula, and clear labelling as to sugar content.

Infant formula in Australia is regulated by the Food Standards code. The code sets down the protein, fat, calorie and micronutrient requirements in formula – “but there are no specific requirements about the amount of carbohydrate or the sugar content,” said Dr Laws.

She said it would preferable if there were “regulations ensuring the carbohydrate and the sugar content was similar to what we would expect in breast milk – and, importantly, the label is able to distinguish the type of sugar that’s in the formula.”

As Dr Laws points out, breast milk predominately contains lactose (also found in cow’s milk), so it is a sugary drink to start with.

The problem with formula is that it routinely boosts the sugar content with other sugars, such as high-fructose corn syrup. And this is the real problem. Manufacturers – most of them multi-nationals – so the problem is a global one – aren’t required to disclose what type of added sugars are in their formulas.

In fact, Dr Laws couldn’t find any research that investigates the range of added sugars manufacturers are favouring. “Certainly, within our research group we were saying, gosh, it would be good to look at that within the Australian context.”

What’s missing, said Dr Laws, is an understanding of the long-term effects of these added sugars on infants and toddlers.

How much sugar is in breast milk anyway?

There is about 6.7 grams of lactose per 100ml in breast milk, so Ms Bridge’s headline could have been equally shocking if it declared – “Breast milk more sugary than some soft drinks!”

In fact, it’s more sugary than most sports drinks. But because of a baby’s needs, and the suitability of lactose as baby food, it’s obviously not an issue.

What did become apparent in researching this story is that – as a side issue – the sugar content in Australian soft drinks is much higher than in the UK. Fanta in Australia has 10.9 grams of sugar per 100ml, compared to 4.2 grams of sugar per 100ml in the UK Fanta.

In an email, Ms Bridge advised: “The piece was written for the UK Conversation, so the reference to ‘some formula milks having twice the sugar of soda drinks’ relates to UK products which have recently been reformulated to reduce their sugar content following taxation.

“I am aware that many sodas are higher in sugar than formula milk – but the title was written to spark interest and debate – which it appears to be doing.”

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