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Nestlé Adds Sugar to Baby Milk and Cereal in Poorer Nations, Report Finds




Food and beverage giant Nestlé adds sugar and honey to its infant milk and cereal products in developing countries but not in European markets, according to a new report published Wednesday.

In a joint investigation, Zurich-based watchdog Public Eye and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) sent popular baby food samples in Asia, Latin America, and Africa from Nestlé—the world’s largest consumer goods corporation worth $265.57 Billion of April 2024—to a testing laboratory in Belgium. The study examined 150 products sold by the company in low and middle-income nations, including best-selling brands Cerelac and Nido.

“We targeted sugar because that's the number one enemy when it comes to nutritional Health,” Laurent Gaberell, Public Eye’s agriculture and nutrition expert, tells TIME. “Exposure to sugar at an early age of babies and infants can be very problematic. It's one of the key factors behind the obesity crisis. If babies are exposed to sugar, they basically have a higher risk of being obese later, and suffering adverse Health outcomes such as diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic diseases.”

The results of the testing found that “almost all” Cerelac wheat-based cereals by Nestlé in those regions, targeted at infants from six months of age, contained added sugar equivalent to an average of 4 grams per serving, or a sugar cube. The highest volume of sugar added to a product, at 7.3 grams per serving, was detected in the Philippines, followed by 6.8 grams in Nigeria and 5.9 grams in Senegal. Additionally, seven out of 15 countries did not declare on product labels that sugar was added.

Meanwhile Nido powdered-milk products aimed at toddlers aged one to three contained almost two grams of added sugar per serving, with milk powder in Panama recording highs of 5.3 grams. This was followed by findings of 4.7 grams of sugar per portion in Nicaragua, and 1.8 grams in Mexico. 

Public Eye and IBFAN found that sugar was not added to equivalent products in Nestlé’s home nation Switzerland, as well as other major European markets in Germany, the U.K. and France. The report calls this “double standard that is unjustifiable and problematic,” both from an ethnic and public health standpoint.

There are currently more than 1 billion people around the world living with obesity. 

In a statement to TIME, a spokesperson for Nestlé said: “Baby food is a highly regulated category. Everywhere we operate, our portfolio complies with local regulations or international standards, including labeling requirements and thresholds on carbohydrate content that encompasses sugars.” 

Gaberell says that it’s difficult to decipher how much sugar is added to a product, as most manufacturers only disclose total sugar content, which can include “basically harmless” natural sugars found in fruit and vegetables. India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, and South Africa are nations that disclose added sugars in Cerelac baby cereals, while countries like: Brazil, Pakistan, the Philippines, Nigeria, Senegal, do not.

The World Health Organization (WHO) European guidelines recommend that no sugars or sweetening agents should be used in food for children under the age of three. There is no other regional guidance, but the European suggestion is internationally applicable. 

Meanwhile U.S. government guidelines suggest children younger than two years old should avoid added sugars, and the U.K. marks this limit at children under four. Gaberell says there is a growing consensus around the world for babies to avoid early consumption of sugar. 

“The only reason why Nestlé does it is basically because they know that kids like sugar and they will come back and want their product,” says Gaberell. “It's just to increase the sales of their product.” 

Nestlé says that it has reduced the amount of sugar added to its worldwide portfolio of infant cereals by 11% over the last decade. The spokesperson said total sugars are declared in Nestlé products and that Nido and Cerelac products have “slight variations in Recipes” due to regulations and availability of local ingredients.

Public Eye and IBFAN’s report noted that iNFLuencer marketing was a major strategy employed by Nestlé. Gaberell said the company uses “mom iNFLuencers” and Health specialists in paid partnerships that “mislead” the average consumer. Gaberell also notes that the paid partnerships can look like trustworthy expert advice compared to conventional advertising methods.

“You'll find online social media nutritionists, pediatricians, doctors, that promote Nestlé products, NIDO and Cerelac products as healthy for kids as good for their immunity, good for their brain development” says Gaberell. “The problem is that they are targeting moms and parents with that kind of content.”