Since 2017, the rising cost of infant formula has been in the news. Many parents have been left confused as to why the price of a 900 gram tin of formula can range between 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.
Government stance on premium infant formula
Infant formula came under scrutiny by the Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) as far back as 2016, with complaints about the price of infant formula skyrocketing. In fact, over the past decade, the price of infant formula have gone up about 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 babies home. They're 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.
The Health Promotion Board have categorically stated that all infant formula brands sold in Singapore meet the nutritional needs of babies and can be used as part of balanced diet.
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, DHA accumulates in the unborn baby's 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 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 high 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 a more affordable 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.
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