Study finds digital formula marketing is associated with poor parental eating habits

A study found that commercial infant formula and meals are marketed online and that these marketing techniques are linked to poor feeding practices by parents. The study was published in the journal BMJ Global Health.

According to the research, mothers with high exposure to digital marketing were less likely to exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months and more likely to give them processed foods and sugary drinks. This has led researchers to call for stricter regulations to protect the nutrition and health of young children. According to the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (Code), all educational and informational material should emphasize the benefits and superiority of breastfeeding as well as provide guidelines for the correct use of infant formula. However, they may not include illustrations idealizing the use of breastmilk substitutes.

No company is allowed to make direct or indirect contact with pregnant women, parents or caregivers, including via social media platforms, in accordance with the Code. The researchers wanted to estimate the exposure of Mexican parents with infants under 24 months of age to digital marketing of infant formula and baby food, its association with the purchase of these products, and breastfeeding practices and supplementary feeding.

Parents (1074) were recruited from a nationally representative market research panel and asked about the brands, products and digital platforms where they said they had seen commercials for infant formula and baby food between December 2020 and January 2021. The survey included questions about how and why purchases were made and how feeding 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 formulas on digital media were infant formulas (0-6 months; 92%) and growing-up milks (12-36 months; 89%). Porridge (77%) and yogurt (71%) were the most frequently advertised baby foods. Only 13 percent of parents were aware of the Code, and only about half (48 percent) felt that the current regulations regarding the marketing of infant formula and baby food were inadequate. Nearly 55 percent felt the ad portrayed formula as equal to or better than breast milk.

Ninety-five parents were asked to take three 10-minute screen recordings of their mobile devices while browsing the internet or viewing their social media and smartphone apps. The number of infant formula and baby food advertisements seen in each record were counted and categorized as intentional or unintentional searches.

Eighty-nine (94%) viewed at least one commercial for infant formula and/or baby food during their 30 minutes of recording, with an average of around 7 commercials seen in each recording during one intentional search and about 2 during unintentional searches. The most advertised product was growing up milk (42 percent), although advertising for infant formula (0-6 months) was also identified (20 percent). 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%); the absence of warnings about the risks of improper preparation of preparations (95%) or advice to consult health professionals about 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 their children formula, more than twice as likely to give them processed foods and 66% more likely to give them sugary drinks. Higher exposure to advertisements was associated with twice the likelihood of purchasing a product based on nutrition and organic claims made in digital marketing.

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 concluded: “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 feeding practices. optimal nutrition (for infants and young children).

“This call to action is urgent to safeguard children’s health and right to breastfeeding and to natural, nutritious, sufficient and quality food.” (ANI)

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(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

Cathy W. Howerton