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Babies and toddlers climbing aboard Nestlé’s sugar train — but only in poorer countries

Babies and toddlers climbing aboard Nestlé’s sugar train — but only in poorer countries
Many of Nestlé’s food and beverage portfolios aimed at young children are deemed unhealthy products, according to a report by Public Eye. (Photos: Wikipedia, Nestle)

NGO Public Eye has released a report showing that the amount of sugar in Nestlé products made for babies and toddlers in South Africa and other low- and middle-income countries is in contravention of international guidelines aimed at preventing obesity and chronic diseases.

A report by Public Eye, an investigative Swiss NGO along with the International Baby Food Action Network (Ibfan), released new findings about the amount of sugar in Nestlé products made for babies and toddlers in South Africa and other low- and middle-income countries. The findings show that Nestle is in contravention of international guidelines aimed at preventing obesity and chronic diseases

In Switzerland, Nestlé does not sell Cerelac and Nido. But all of Nestlé’s baby cereals and growing-up milk products for infants and toddlers under two years of age do not contain any added sugar, Public Eye’s research shows.

In South Africa, all nine Cerelac products identified by Public Eye — Nestlé’s best-selling cereal brand, made for babies and toddlers — do contain sugar. On average, about 4 grams per serving, or one teaspoon of sugar, Public Eye found.

Six grams per serving was found in the Biscuit Flavour Cerelac product in South Africa, targeted at children from seven months onwards.

With retail sales surpassing $25-million in 2022, South Africa is one of the important markets for Cerelac, according to exclusive Euromonitor data obtained by Public Eye and Ibfan. Euromonitor International is the world’s leading independent provider of strategic market research.

Sugar is added to Nido products too, their research shows. Nido is promoted as a “nutritional brand”, “tailored to meet the unique needs of South African little children” and is their best-selling follow-up milk formula brand. The product, marketed towards toddlers aged one to three years old, contains 0.8 grams of added sugar per serving.

Nido sales in South Africa were at around $10-million in 2022.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Nutrition activists urge Nestlé to cancel ‘Free Stokvel Mom and Child Forum’ saying it violates SA regulations

While the sugar in Cerelac is generally added in the form of sucrose (table sugar), Nido generally adds honey — also made up of a combination of glucose and fructose, qualifying as added sugar. Although honey has no sugars added during its production, eating pure honey contributes added sugars to a person’s diet.

Public Eye’s report highlights that Nigeria is the main market for Cerelac in the Africa region, with $100-million made in 2022. Their laboratory analysis found up to 6.8 grams per serving in one Cerelac product, marketed towards infants six months and up.

Product testing proved tricky 

To find out the amount of added sugar in Nestlé’s baby food products, Public Eye and Ibfan purchased Cerelac infant cereals and Nido growing-up milk products in key markets and sent samples to a laboratory for analysis of the sugar content.

Some of the countries they tested products from include Indonesia, Philippines, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, Senegal, Nigeria, South Africa, and India.

They report that multiple certified labs in Switzerland refused to conduct the analysis in the products, with one lab refusing to participate because “the results of the project could potentially have a negative impact on our existing customers”.

So, the baby food samples were sent for sugar analysis to a laboratory based in Belgium, the Brussels Centre for Food Expertise (Brucefo).

Added sugars adding to non-communicable disease burden

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended banning the addition of sugars and sweeteners to baby food products for infants and young children under three years of age, as this “may contribute to childhood obesity and non-communicable diseases”.

The United Nations has urged the food industry to “be proactive” and to “support public health goals” by removing added sugars and sweeteners from its baby food products.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) said the stakes are “highest” in the first two years of life and foods high in sugar can set children “on the path to unhealthy food consumption, overweight and diet-related diseases.”

The United States’ new Dietary Guidelines also recommend no added sugar for babies under age two. Why? Because, “Taste preferences are being formed during this time period, and infants and young children may develop preferences for overly sweet foods if introduced to very sweet foods during this timeframe”.

In 2016, 33% of men and 68% of women in South Africa were categorised as overweight or obese. Half of all adults in South Africa are overweight or obese.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Obesity in South Africa — experts explain how inequality is driving the surge

South Africa has the highest rates of childhood obesity in the world, sitting at 13%.

Thirty per cent of adolescent girls, aged 15-19 are overweight or obese, “threatening a non-communicable diseases epidemic”, Unicef warns.

Being overweight and obese in early childhood increases the risk for adult obesity, as well as associated conditions like high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure.

The growth of the country’s commercial food industry, which has led to “increased consumption of cheap, easily accessible and ultra-processed food that is high in sugar”, is considered one of the main causes of South Africa’s high rates of overweight and obesity.

The obesity epidemic is primarily driven by fundamental changes in the food system including the ease and availability of cheap processed foods, reduced physical activity and the high cost of healthy diets.

For over 50 years, Public Eye has offered a critical analysis of the impact that Switzerland, and its companies, has on poorer countries.

The International Baby Food Action Network (Ibfan) is an international coalition aiming to improve maternal, infant and young child health, formed by a small group of organisations and activists concerned about the high mortality of formula-fed babies, beginning in 1979.

Nestlé responds

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. Baby food is a highly regulated category. Everywhere we operate, our portfolio complies with local regulations or international standards, including labelling requirements and thresholds on carbohydrate content that encompasses sugars. Over the past decade, Nestlé has reduced by 11% the total amount of added sugars in our infant cereals portfolio worldwide.

We continue to innovate and reformulate our infant cereal products to further reduce the level of added sugars without compromising on quality, safety, and taste. We always declare the total sugars in our products, including those coming from honey, for example. In the case of our NIDO growing up milks (from 12 to 36 months), all added sugars (sucrose and glucose syrup) are being phased out of our recipes worldwide.

We support the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life, followed by the introduction of adequate nutritious complementary foods along with sustained breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond. For infants who cannot be breastfed or whose mothers choose not to breastfeed, infant formula is the only safe and suitable breastmilk substitute (BMS) recognised by the WHO.

You can find the full report here. DM

This article was updated on 17 April at 3.45pm to include Nestlé’s response.

Lillian Roberts is a freelance journalist in South Africa with a focus on social and health issues, and has previously written for Forbes Africa and Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Thank you for sharing this important massage for us.

  • Glen Tyler says:

    Nestle makes me so angry. “are being phased out of our recipes worldwide” if you acknowledge it’s not good and that it needs to be phased out, why not just stop selling it until it’s removed?

  • The concerns raised in the article regarding Nestlé’s baby food products warrant a closer look, particularly with regards to sugar content. However, it’s crucial to consider all facets of the issue before drawing conclusions. Let’s break down some key points:

    1. Compliance with Regulations: Nestlé asserts that their baby food products adhere to local regulations and international standards, including labelling requirements and thresholds on carbohydrate content. This suggests that Nestlé is operating within legal parameters and is subject to rigorous scrutiny to ensure compliance with industry standards.

    2. Commitment to Quality and Nutrition: Nestlé emphasizes its commitment to providing high-quality ingredients tailored to the growth and development of children. They assert that their products undergo continuous innovation and reformulation to reduce added sugars without compromising on safety or taste. This demonstrates a proactive approach to addressing nutritional concerns and improving product offerings.

    3. Industry Regulations and Recommendations: While concerns have been raised about the sugar content in Nestlé’s baby food products, it’s important to recognize that the food industry operates within a regulatory framework that sets guidelines and standards. Nestlé’s response indicates a willingness to align with recommendations from reputable organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding breastfeeding and the introduction of complementary foods.

    4. Contextual Considerations: It’s essential to consider the broader context in which these products are consumed, including socio-economic factors, cultural practices, and dietary patterns. Nestlé’s products may play a vital role in providing nutrition to infants and toddlers in regions where access to fresh or affordable foods is limited.

    In conclusion, while the concerns raised by the NGO Public Eye warrant attention, Nestlé’s response underscores its commitment to nutritional quality, compliance with regulations, and ongoing efforts to address consumer concerns. By engaging with stakeholders, continuing to innovate, and prioritizing transparency, Nestlé can further enhance the nutritional value and safety of its baby food products.

    In a world where cheap shots are as common as penny candy, let’s remember: campaigns built on substance always outlast those constructed from flimsy critiques. So, while the detractors may aim for a quick jab, true success comes from standing tall amidst the storm of skepticism. Keep building, keep innovating, and let the results speak for themselves!

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