On September 11, 2007, I was remembering that fateful day six years before, which changed the course of our history. I didn’t read until a few days later that a breastfeeding study had been published on the very same day. This study on breastfeeding made a surprising discovery. It claimed that “breastfeeding provided no protective benefits” for allergies and asthma (PDF). The story was featured in many online news sources, including an online TIME magazine article entitled “What Breastfeeding Can’t Do.”
Hm, I thought to myself when I read that. Maybe I should read the original study (PDF) to see what I can find.
So I read the study, and it looked pretty solid. But I did notice something strange. The study explained about how it was unethical to create a control group by asking women to formula feed, so they instead had two groups: one in which the mothers were encouraged to breastfeed and actively helped postpartum women as per the WHO and UNICEF baby-friendly hospital initiative guidelines (they called this group PROBIT), and the other in which the women were treated as most women are treated when they give birth in a hospital: as though formula were the “norm.” Unsurprisingly, the group that was encouraged to breastfeed had larger numbers of women breastfeeding exclusively and for longer. This was, in fact, the only thing that could be concluded definitively after reading the entire study: that the WHO and UNICEF baby-friendly initiatives work to encourage breastfeeding (and to thus increase the health and wellbeing of women and their babies universally). But that part was glaringly absent from news and media reports. The other part, the part about breastfeeding offering no protective benefits against allergies and asthma, wasn’t really as crystal clear, yet it made the headlines.
I had a few problems with this study. For starters, the control group and the experimental group both contained mothers who breastfed exclusively. It’s just that one group contained more of one than the other. The experimental group, the one where mothers were encouraged to breastfeed more, had higher incidence of family history of asthma and allergies compared to the control group, as well as a higher incidence of smoking. The difference was statistically significant enough that I wondered why that difference wasn’t noted explicitly when they were drawing their conclusions. It was actually spoken of as though the difference were trivial enough to be ignored, when it’s not. It could have invalidated the findings by introducing too many variables.
The way the data is presented, it’s not clear which of the children who suffered from allergies were the ones that were breastfed and which ones were the ones that were formula fed. Nor was there any mention at all about introduction of solids, which has been shown already to influence allergies. It was really a mess of an experiment, with the doctors aware of who was breastfed and who wasn’t (which could introduce a potential bias) and like I said, the only thing that can be definitively concluded from it is that creating baby-friendly hospital initiatives as per the WHO/UNICEF guidelines increases the initiation and continuation of breastfeeding and exclusive breastfeeding.
But I dropped it. I didn’t blog about it because I figured it was surely a fluke, and the study does look very tight at first blush, with prestigious McGill Universty as the University to claim it, I figured it was legitimate (and it probably still is, at least in part). It was hard to disprove its legitimacy, so I moved on.
And then today I found out about yet another study that lays a damaging blow to breastfeeding’s normally stellar reputation. Well, okay, not really damaging. But it’s not good news about breastfeeding. It’s a study that supposedly discovered that breastfeeding offers no protection for dental caries in school-age children. I thought to myself, That’s odd. The wording sounds almost like that other study. I wonder if… Nah, it can’t be. Surely it’s not the same people, studying the same two groups, coming to even more disparaging conclusions about breastfeeding. That would be quite the coincidence!
Well, it is. It’s the same PROBIT people, the gang’s all there.
Well, I started wondering who the heck funded these PROBIT people? It can’t be… Nah, not Nestlé. I mean, heh-heh, that’s almost like a cliché. You know, whenever something evil happens in the infant feeding world, some unscrupulous marketing maneuver in favor of infant formula, Nestle is always the culprit, right? Ha-ha-ha. It’s like a joke at this point. Surely they’re not still doing evil, sneaky deeds with the ole formula promotion, right? Surely.
Oh, I wish I could tell you it weren’t so, but I’d be lying. See, the PROBIT study (III) is being funded by two entities: The Canadian Institutes of Health Research and an entity that calls itself The European Union 6th Framework Programme. Oooo. Sounds official.
Why is it that nowhere on the website for the EARNEST Program (a division of the EU 6th Framework Programme, NOT the entire EU 6th Framework Programme, which is the “financial arm” of a lot of European research) is there any real positive mention of breastfeeding? Why is it that an entire website dedicated to “early nutrition,” complete with pictures of babies (none of them breastfeeding, but with one very young-looking baby being spoon-fed solid food), there isn’t really any talk of breastfeeding, but LOTS of talk about infant formula? What kind of an “educational” nutrition site is this anyway? Oh, wait. I think I know. After finding the members of the Consortium which make it up, I found one of the members to be Dr. Katherine Mace, from Nestlé, Switzerland. Nestlé’s headquarters are in Switzerland, and Nestlé is a multi-billion-dollar (or should I say multi-billion-franc? Eh, potato, potahto…) corporation which makes billions more every year selling infant formula and other foodstuffs around the world. You think that’s why, maybe, there’s no real mention of breastfeeding on the entire website? That breastfeeding is kind of an invisible afterthought, on a site that claims to specialize in early nutrition for goodness’ sake, and that lots of talk of infant formula, as though it were the infant feeding norm, doesn’t cause my hackles to go up? Yeah, it does. (EARNEST — “The Early Nutrition Programming Project” — is actually a consortium composed in part by European infant formula and cereal manufacturers, including: NUMICO, Ordesa, and Nestlé, S.A. It also includes other food manufacturers and food manufacturing research entities which appear to all be related to the food and/or drug industry in some capacity, along with a few neutral universities thrown in. You might also be interested in reading this “enlightening” and completely biased article, on the International Association of Infant Food Manufacturers website, by Alan Lucas, a significant player in the EARNEST program: Collaborative Research with Infant Formula Companies Should Not Always Be Censored. All I have to say to that is, “What the fuck kind of statement is that?!” And furthermore, “Yes, it should be censored.” And I am the sort of person that normally doesn’t like the idea of anything being censored, but I draw the line at having formula companies conduct their version of breastfeeding “research” and having people believe the conclusions they draw are unbiased).
You know what’s really interesting, though? The President of Nutrition for Nestle Canada, Ms. Marilyn Knox, sat on the advisory board of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in 2001-2002. Question: Why did the Canadian Institutes of Science Research allow the President of Nutrition for Nestlé Canada to participate as one of its advisory board members? I don’t know the answer to that question, but maybe the Canadian Institutes of Health Research does? Would be interesting to hear it. At the very least, I think there’s a conflict of interest in having an important employee of a multi-billion dollar international food corporation sit in on the advisory board of a national health institute. But that’s just me.
Oh, here’s another interesting tidbit. One of the professors in charge of securing funding for the study, Professor Michael Kramer of McGill University… Oh, wait, he’s not just one of the… He’s the first one listed, indicating he’s probably the main professor in charge of the study. He’s done research for The “Nestlé Nutrition Workshop Series” (PDF). Conflict of interest, much?
Nestlé is powerful enough to influence the truth. They’ve already done it (and continue to do it) fabulously well (for them) in their marketing practices in third world countries. For first world countries, a more sophisticated approach is needed, one that appears more credible than mere WHO-code-violating television commercials. The first-world approach seems to involve funding legitimate-sounding studies, and if not the studies themselves, then the conclusions drawn from them years later, with claims that they are the “largest randomized trials ever undertaken in the area of human lactation.” Pretty lofty, important-sounding claims! I suppose any conclusions drawn from them must be the truth, right? Who knows?
Here’s an exercise to bring this concept of Nestlé’s pervasive influence around the world further home, especially for those of you who boycott Nestlé. These are some of Nestlé’s brands, some of which don’t say “Nestlé” explicitly on them. Can you honestly say you don’t have a single one in your home? Or that you haven’t bought one in, say, the last week?
Remember this: Always question. Never stop. If the conclusions drawn by a study were paid for (even if only in part) by someone selling formula (i.e., Nestle), those same conclusions may lack credibility.
(I am still finishing up that Breastfeeding Promotion Act action post I’ve been promising you, dear readers. Don’t despair.)