Nestlé’s sugary baby food in developing nations expose double standards

Nestle, Cerelac
Despite WHO guidelines banning sugar in baby food, Nestlé's Cerelac packs a sugary punch in developing countries like India.

Swiss food and beverages conglomerate Nestlé is facing global scrutiny for adding sugar in its baby foods such as Cerelac. The Indian food regulator FSSAI said it will examine the high sugar and honey content in infant milk and cereal products sold in India. An investigation by the Swiss non-profit organisation Public Eye revealed that Nestlé added sugars, including sucrose and honey, to products like Nido — a follow-up milk formula for infants over one year — and Cerelac, a cereal for children aged six months to two years.

Adding sugar in products sold in poorer regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America is a troubling practice by multinational corporations. The Vevey, Switzerland-based company does not add sugars in baby formulas sold in the European markets and England. European baby cereals for those aged six months to one year are sugar-free. Cerelac, which generates over $1 billion in global sales, counts Brazil and India as its largest markets, contributing to 40% of its sales. In 2022, Cerelac sales in India exceeded $250 million. Each serving in Indian Cerelac contained an average of three grams of added sugar.

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Nestlé: Sweetening profits, souring health 

Research suggests that sugar can be addictive, leading to increased cravings and repeat purchases. Some manufacturers might add sugar intentionally to infant foods to develop a preference for sweetness early on. This practice is linked to rising obesity and chronic diseases, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, where over 1 billion people live with obesity.

The long-term health consequences of early sugar exposure cannot be overstated. Consuming high levels of sugar from a young age can predispose children to diabetes, dental problems, and metabolic issues later in life. It is critical for regulators and health organisations to prioritise the health of the youngest population by advocating for sugar-free products and educating parents on the potential health impacts.

Nestlé has defended its practices by stating compliance with local and international standards, including labelling requirements. However, the company’s assertion does not address the fundamental issue — the inappropriateness of added sugars in infant products. Nestlé India has stated a reduction of added sugars by up to 30% in some products over the past five years, but this effort seems insufficient.

Ethical marketing practices must be a cornerstone for companies like Nestlé, especially when it involves products for infants and young children. The marketing of these products should strictly adhere to the highest standards of honesty and transparency, ensuring that parents are fully aware of the contents and the potential health effects of the foods they are giving to their children.

Public Eye has criticised Nestlé for its double standards, urging an end to this harmful practice worldwide. In response to media reports, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) emphasised the unique nutritional needs of infants, calling for strict quality and safety standards in baby foods. While FSSAI has questioned the credibility of Public Eye’s findings, it views Nestlé’s defence as an acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

Global health organisations such as the WHO set international standards and advocate policies that protect children’s health worldwide. These organisations should intensify their efforts to establish clear guidelines that restrict the use of additives like sugar in baby food and enforce these guidelines rigorously across all nations, regardless of economic status.

The Nestlé controversy highlights the unethical prioritisation of profit over consumer health, particularly in wealthier nations where products are marketed as sugar-free. Regulatory bodies worldwide must enforce stringent standards for all baby food manufacturers, ensuring consistent product quality regardless of a country’s economic status. In India, transparency in labelling is crucial, as consumers often struggle to discern added sugars from naturally occurring ones.

Nestlé has a history of controversial marketing strategies, particularly in promoting formula over breastfeeding in developing countries. However, some products like Nan Pro in India are clearly labelled, stating that mother’s milk is best for babies.

While brands bear ethical responsibilities, governments and individuals must also act. Consumers need to make informed choices, starting with reading product labels thoroughly. Governments should enforce stricter regulations, increase awareness, and consider stringent measures like bans when necessary—as demonstrated by the previous ban on Maggi in India.