Evidence is weak that costlier infant formula is better for newborns. Should parents continue paying high prices?
Ever since 2017, the rising cost of infant formula has been on the news. More than one parent has been left confused, as to why the price of a 900 gram tin of formula can range from S$35 to well over S$55.
Whilst many parents decide to “be on the safe side” and take the pricier formula, government authorities have pointed out that it’s not that simple. More expensive isn’t always better:
What Do Government Authorities Say About Expensive Infant Formula?
Infant formula came under scrutiny by the Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) as far back as 2016, when there were complaints that the price of infant formula was skyrocketing. In fact, over the past decade, the prices of infant formula have risen by around 120 per cent in Singapore.
While CCS did not find any anti-competitive practices, they did find something problematic. Milk manufacturers engage in aggressive tactics, such as sponsoring milk products in private hospitals. This helps to “entrench” their brand as being premium or better, so parents keep buying it even after they bring their babie home. They are likely to do this even if the premium milk powder is more expensive.
In addition to this, there has been a joint statement from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), Ministry of Health, and Health Promotion Board. The statement says that many of the claims made by infant formula manufacturers, while not totally disproven, are also weak.
Why the High Prices?
Infant formula manufacturers often advertise a higher Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, content. DHA is a type of Omega-3 acid. During pregnancy, as a baby is forming, DHA accumulates in the brain and retina. It’s important for neural as well as visual development. This is a proven scientific fact.
Because of this, some infant formulas market the addition of DHA in their formula, and use this to justify their price hikes. The theory is that, since DHA is used for eye and brain development, having more of it in the milk powder must be good for a baby. At the time of writing, infant formula that boasts “DHA fortified” labels are around S$56 per 900 gram tin; a far cry from the S$35 products on the same shelves.
But is the Price Justified?
As stated above, DHA is present in the child’s brain and eyes during pregnancy. However, what isn’t proven is that adding more DHA to infant formula will aid in building intelligence, or better eyesight. A systematic review by the Cochrane Library found little evidence to support this.
Furthermore, the AVA has pointed out that – even among infant formulas that are half the price of premium brands – the requirements are the same. In other words, even if you were to buy the cheapest infant formula, your child would still be getting the required nutrients.
Paying for more nutrients, such as added DHA, is purely an option. But before paying for it, take note of what our health authorities, as well as scientists the world over, have stated: it’s unlikely that your child will get any real benefit, as the scientific evidence behind it is weak.
What Should Parents Do?
The Health Promotion Board has stated that breastfeeding is best for babies, as has the World Health Organisation. However, if this isn’t possible, then parents should consider buying “normal” infant formula – usually in the S$35 range – instead of premium brands.
Given a difference of S$20 per tin, the savings can come up to a significant amount. New parents are better off putting that into their child’s savings fund, or using it to secure early health insurance for their child.
Use the Right Credit Cards For More Savings
Whether you go for premium brands or not, infant formula is pricey, with many parents often surprised at how quickly those tins run empty.
Between infant formula, diapers, babywear and other necessities, having a newborn can cause your expenses to skyrocket. Now is the time to make sure to get all the savings you can muster.
Try pairing your baby purchases with the UOB One Card, which gives you up to 5% cashback on your transactions.
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By Ryan Ong
Ryan has been writing about finance for the last 10 years. He also has his fingers in a lot of other pies, having written for publications such as Men’s Health, Her World, Esquire, and Yahoo! Finance.