Kimberly Seals Allers

(WOMENSENEWS)–The Food and Drug Administration announced earlier this month that it is planning to look into the health claims of infant formulas. I couldn’t be happier.

One of the biggest, or should I say latest, of the formula industry’s misleading claims is related to omega-3 fatty acids–DHA, in particular–which misleads mothers into thinking formula is just as good as breast milk.

Specifically, the FDA says it wants to: "assess women’s understanding of and response to various statements on infant formula labels. The study results will be used to help the agency to understand the role that certain types of statements on infant formula labels have in influencing formula choice . . . The study will focus on purchase choice, perceived similarity of the formula to breast milk and perceived likelihood that the formula has certain health benefits."

This is great news. For years, infant formula companies have successfully marketed their products as just as good as breast milk without any such evidence. This marketing has been particularly aggressive in the black community. In a recent interview, a lactation consultant told me of a mom who asked for "the formula with breast milk in it." Wow!

No such thing actually exists, but it highlights the dangerously successful marketing by deep-pocketed formula companies that leave moms confused about what formula is and isn’t.

Having been an intrepid business reporter for many years and a former senior writer at Fortune magazine, I can certainly understand the business dilemma of the formula makers: There is no money to be made from breastfeeding. Plain and simple.

When your No. 1 competition is free, and you can’t compete on price, you have to be creative. Really creative. And even misleading.

‘Conditional’ Nutrients Pushed

Meanwhile, market competition pushes formula companies to improve their product by adding so-called nutrients–especially the ones that can be considered "conditional" by the FDA. A conditional nutrient is one that might have some benefits under some circumstances. Even if the health benefits are minimal or questionable, they can still be used in advertising.

As a result, many formulas have added fatty acids such as omega-6 arachidonic acid (ARA) and omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)–the same ones that are found in fish oil. These two fatty acids are naturally present in breast milk and are reported to help infant brain development and vision.

But here’s what happened behind the scenes: Formula makers were able to get the FDA to agree that ARA and DHA are normal components of food (which is true) and therefore are Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). Once the nutrients had this designation, companies were then free to add ARA and DHA to infant formulas without having to prove that either of them really did anything useful or beneficial.

But the mere mention of such additives gave formulas breast milk cred. Even worse, instead of marketing formula as a safe alternative if you can’t breastfeed, they tried to make it appear just as good as breastfeeding for all mothers.

I mean, why bother to breastfeed if I can give my child the same nutrients from formula, a mother could reason.

The problem is, you can’t.

And it’s high time the government stopped allowing deceptive marketing of formula at the cost of infant and maternal health.

If you agree, please join me in letting the FDA know that this study is welcome and long overdue. You can also file comments at Refer to Docket No. FDA–2011–N–0098

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Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist and editorial director of the Black Maternal Health project at Women’s eNews. A former senior editor at Essence and writer at Fortune, she is the founder of, a parenting destination for African Americans, and author of "The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy" (Amistad/HarperCollins) and two other Mocha Manual books.

For more information:

File Comments, Docket No. FDA–2011–N–0098: