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Bottle Barriers: Nestle’s Swiss Foods Infant Formula Sugar Scandal Speaks to the Significance of First Food Justice

Bintou Diarra | Editorial Lead | MS1: Alpert Medical School of Brown University | May 20, 2024

In the beautiful chaos following the birth of a newborn, the journey of infant feeding takes center stage. From the first latch to the introduction of solids, a myriad of factors shape the infant feeding experience.

Unfortunately, recent news reifies that harmful practices by major players within the infant feeding sphere is among them. According to a Public Eye report, Swiss food giant Nestle baby-food brands, which are largely regarded as the optimal source of infant nutrition in middle and low-income countries, contain high levels of added sugar. What’s worse, in Switzerland and other European countries, Nestle’s products closely adhere to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) standards of optimal nutrition for infants, and do not contain any sugar. 

This is equal parts disheartening and enlightening for a number of reasons. We are met with the blatant reminder that not all infants are treated equally. We are met with the reminder that the youngest members of our families and communities are not shielded from the global and destructive phenomena that are structural and systemic racism. And most importantly, yet not widely talked about in the ensuing aftermath, we are faced with the challenge of addressing the entanglement of structural and systemic racism with infant feeding practices and experiences. Not only does Swiss food firm Nestle’s sugar scandal speak to the persistence of harmful practices that reflect glaring ethnic and racial disparities, but it also speaks to the necessity of shedding light on a framework that is not widely known, let alone often discussed: first food justice.

The first foods justice framework is at the core of our Infant Feeding Specialist Program at the Mama Glow Foundation. In addition to shedding light on the disheartening reality that inequality remains deeply entrenched in our modes of being, it stands as a praxis. While developing the content for the course, which rests on a number of realizations on which the United States’ vibrant workforce of doulas, midwives, lactation consultants, and other birth workers operate, not only were we clear on the necessity of the work, but we were also astonished at the lack of teaching and content around the framework. The principles of first food justice should govern many teachings within the world of infant nutrition, and it should be among the first things we educate its various players on.

Coined by Penny Van Esterik, the term first food justice acknowledges the absence of the first food system from the general discourse surrounding environmental and food justice. It centers an analysis of the systemic and structural factors that undermine the people, resources, and processes related to infant feeding to highlight the significance of the ultimate goal: the condition where all babies have the full ability to exercise their right to eat and caregivers their right to feed. The framework of first food justice encourages us to consider the social forces that either thwart, or promote this consumption. Nestle’s recent sugar scandal positions them among the social forces that hinder this consumption. Parents cannot exercise their “full” ability to feed in the absence of informed consent or education about what is best for themselves and their babies.

It’s equally, if not more, important to note the selective hindrance of this consumption. According to the report, Nestlé promotes its biscuit-flavored cereals for babies aged from six months with the claim “no added sugar” in Switzerland, while Cerelac cereals (with the same flavor) sold in Senegal contain 6 grams of added sugar per serving. Similarly, in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, cereals for babies aged six months contained no added sugar. In the Philippines, South Africa, and Thailand, Nestle’s products contained unhealthy levels of added sugar. The fact of infants receiving discordant nutrition on the basis of differences in where they are in the world is not just disheartening. It is unacceptable.

Similarly, Nestle’s decision to adhere to standards of optimal nutrition in some countries, and deviate from these standards in others means that some infants are exposed to the pernicious and longstanding effects of these practices, while others are not. Given that infants do not eat as much as toddlers or adults, the addition of sugars to their meals can be catastrophic. In addition to childhood obesity and tooth decay, added sugars heighten the risk of cardiovascular disease

In addition to drawing attention to the histories that create the conditions of today, the first food justice framework encourages us to explore the interplay between past and present. This recent scandal speaks to a longstanding history of unethical practices. Fifty years ago, the Baby Killer Scandal implicated Nestle in causing illness and death among infants in lesser-resourced nations by promoting infant formula products at the cost (and intentional obscuration) of breastfeeding.

When it comes to infant feeding, the question of formula, breast, or bottle feeding is not the only dilemma facing the world’s parents. By embracing the framework of first food justice, we are not only committing to exploring the various realities that set the groundwork for the sugar scandal to occur, but we are also setting an important code of conduct for infant nutrition that ensures safe feeding (and eating) for all.

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