Digital formula marketing linked to unhealthy parental feeding practices

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Digital marketing of commercial formula and baby food is linked to unhealthy parental feeding practices, suggests research published in the open-access journal BMJ Global Health.

Mothers exposed to intensive digital marketing were less likely to exclusively breastfeed in the first 6 months and more likely to feed their children processed foods and sugary drinks, findings show, prompting researchers to call for regulations more stringent to protect the nutrition and health of young children.

The International Code of Marketing of Substitutes state that all informational and educational materials must state the benefits and superiority of breastfeeding, along with instructions for the appropriate use of the infant. and must not contain visuals idealizing the use of breastmilk substitutes.

The Code also states that no company should seek direct or indirect contact with or parents and guardians, including through social media.

The researchers wanted to estimate the exposure of Mexican parents with infants under 24 months of age to digital infant formula marketing and its association with the purchase of these products, and breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices.

A total of 1,074 parents were recruited from a nationally representative market research panel and interviewed about brands, products and where they said they saw commercials for formula milk and baby food between December 2020 and January 2021.

The survey included questions about how and why purchases were made, and how eating practices were influenced by digital marketing. Parents’ knowledge of the Code, their views on digital marketing regulations, and whether ads made them think formula and commercial baby foods were as good or better than breast milk also been captured.

Exposure to infant formula and baby food digital marketing was ranked as the weekly frequency that parents said they observed advertisements and the number of advertised products they said they saw in the previous month. .

Almost two-thirds (62%) of the participants were women. On average, they were 28 years old and had 2 children, half of whom were under 12 months old. They were mostly educated and relatively well off.

A third of mothers (33%) exclusively breastfed their children under 6 months and almost half (45%) continued to breastfeed after 12 months.

Among children up to 23 months, 58% received formula milk, 43% consumed sugary drinks and almost three-quarters (72%) had consumed processed foods the day before the survey.

In the past month, most (82%) parents said they had purchased formula or baby food. The main reasons cited were nutritional content (45%), convenience (37%) and shelf life (22.5%).

In total, 94% of parents said they had seen digital marketing on at least one site in the previous month, with 86% reporting a weekly frequency. Marketing was seen primarily on social media (77%).

The average number of advertised products reported was 26; the most advertised milks on digital media were infant milks (0-6 months; 92%) and growth milks (12-36 months; 89%). Porridge (77%) and yogurt (71%) were the most frequently advertised baby foods.

Only 13% of parents were aware of the Code and only about half (48%) felt that the current regulations regarding the marketing of infant formula and baby food were inadequate. Nearly 55% felt the ad depicted formula as equal to or better than breast milk.

Ninety-five parents were asked to take three 10-minute screen recordings of their mobile device while browsing the internet or viewing their social media and smartphone apps.

The number of advertisements for infant formula and baby food products seen in each record were counted and categorized as intentional or unintentional searches.

Eighty-nine (94%) observed at least one infant formula and/or baby food ad during their 30 minutes of recording, with an average of about 7 ads seen in each recording during of an intentional search, and about 2 during unintentional searches.

The most advertised product was growing up milk (42%), although advertising for infant formula (0-6 months) was also identified (20%). In each record, at least one advertisement for infant formula or baby food was identified and all contained violations of the Code.

These were primarily the absence of statements about the superiority of breastfeeding (96%); absence of warnings on the risks of poor formula preparation (95%) or advice to consult on the use of these products (93.5%); and invitations to visit websites, social media or links to buy their products (70%).

Overall, parents who reported seeing more ads were 62% less likely to exclusively breastfeed their children in the first 6 months than those who reported fewer, and more twice as likely to feed them breast milk and other milks.

They were also 84% more likely to give formula to their children, more than twice as likely to give them processed foods and 66% more likely to give them .

Higher exposure to advertisements was associated with twice the likelihood of purchasing products based on nutrition and organic claims made in .

This is an observational study, and as such cannot establish cause. And the participants were relatively affluent and well-educated, so the findings might not be more widely applicable, the researchers warn.

Nevertheless, they conclude, “marketing regulations should prohibit breastmilk substitutes and the promotion of baby foods in digital media and the use of health claims, as they may confuse parents about the [infant and young child feeding practices]. This call to action is urgent to safeguard children’s health and right to breastfeeding and to natural, nutritious, sufficient and quality food.”

More information:
Digital marketing of infant formula and baby food negatively influences breastfeeding and complementary feeding: a cross-sectional study and video recording of parental exposure in Mexico, BMJ Global Health (2022). DOI: 10.1136/bmjgh-2022-009904

Quote: Digital Formula Marketing Linked to Unhealthy Parental Feeding Practices (2022, November 7) Retrieved November 7, 2022 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2022-11-digital-formula-linked-unhealthy-parental .html

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Cathy W. Howerton