Sex and The Science Baby

A breakthrough infant formula for babies 0 to 12 months * The first infant formula with BIFIDUS Bâ¢--beneficial cultures like those found in breastmilk to help support Baby's healthy immune system1 * Gentle 100% whey COMFORT PROTEINS® designed to be easy to digest * Complete nutrition in a milk-based formula * DHA & ARA for Babys brain and eye development

There's a classic saying in the advertising industry: "Sell the sizzle, not the steak."

Gerber's "Good Start Protect Plus" baby formula commercial, shown in the video above, is an example. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Surgeon General advocates strongly for breastfeeding babies. I'm not criticizing Gerber's product per se as an option for mothers and their babies, nor their right to market their products. How Gerber chose to market this product is my focus here - using science as a hook to consumers.

Sex, of course, is used to market virtually anything, because it gets people's attention.

But science? "A scientific breakthrough!" heralds the Gerber commercial. It is not. It is a complex mixture of ingredients, ranging from partially hydrolyzed whey proteins ("comfort proteins"!) to bifudus cultures (Bifidobacterium lactis), typically found in yogurts, to DHA (docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid) and ARA (arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid.) For decades, manufacturers have attempted to mimic breast milk to no avail.

{Interestingly, 20 seconds into the commercial a message appears at the bottom of the screen, grey font on a white background, stating "Gerber recommends breast milk as the best start for babies." Isn't the name of their product "Good Start Protect Plus"?} Perhaps a "Good Start" doesn't trump a "Best Start."

Since a six pack of 24 ounce cans costs about $126, such an option is limited to those families able to manage the expense within their budgets.

According to Gerber:


Not all infant formulas are alike. GOOD START milk-based formulas are the only formulas made with gentle 100% whey COMFORT PROTEINS.

Throughout your baby's first year, her digestive system is still developing. That's why we use our unique two-step process to make COMFORT PROTEINS, which are specially designed to be gentle on tiny tummies.

â¢Our unique process starts with 100% whey protein, the highest-quality protein available in infant formula.

â¢Then we break down this gentle whey protein into smaller, easy-to-digest COMFORT PROTEINS.

The Importance of Whey Protein

Just like moms, Nestlé goes to extra lengths for babies. Knowing that all babies' digestive systems are still developing during the first year, we use our unique process to make our formula gentle on your baby's tummy.

A key to that gentle formula is choosing the right protein from the very start. That's why our unique process begins with 100% whey protein, the highest-quality protein available in infant formula. Unlike the protein in other routine formulas, the gentle 100% whey protein in GOOD START formulas doesn't form curds in babies' developing tummies.

Clinical evidence has shown that formula made with 100% whey partially hydrolyzed protein empties from babies' tummies faster than other routine formulas, which may help reduce the potential for spitting up.

But it's the diaper that tells the story best. The stools of babies on formulas with 100% whey partially hydrolyzed protein tend to be softer, more like those of breastfed infants.

There are relatively few published scientific and medical studies on partially hydrolyzed whey proteins. In one study, Australian researchers asked whether baby formulas containing hydrolyzed whey protein could be useful for the prevention of allergy and food intolerance in infants. Their conclusion:

There is no evidence to support feeding with a hydrolysed formula for the prevention of allergy compared to exclusive breast feeding.

Claims of benefits of bifudus are questionable, and the American Academy of Pediatrics cautions that it is unclear whether the potential health benefits of probiotic formula continue after formula feeding is stopped.

While this is not a comprehensive review of the scientific and medical literature on the components of Gerber's baby formula, these studies are representative. I invite readers to post any published peer-reviewed studies that support, or challenge, Gerber's claims.

According to Dr. Shahla Wunderlich, Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at Montclair State University:

...the good start formula commercial is misleading and is not supported by long term studies. Mother's milk cannot be formulated commercially. When you add many chemicals to the formula, by no means can compete with mother nature. So all these claims are nothing but claims, all are for marketing purposes.

{Regarding} "comfort proteins" {I have} never seen it in nutrition textbooks.

We should encourage mothers to breast feed babies and to be less dependent on the commercial formulas.

...{It is} a good marketing plan for Nestle. I wonder if they have a comparison studies?
Breaking the natural proteins does not exactly mimics breastmilk. For years babies thrived on mother's milk. Processing the proteins in the milk does not necessary make them better.


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I strongly suspect women make the decision to use formula or not based on emotional components (i.e. how much of a pain- sometimes literally- is breastfeeding?) and then tell marketers in focus groups that arguments that most swayed them were the 'scientific' sounding ones.

I can hope that no one is choosing formula over breastmilk based on perceived scientific superiority of formula generally. On the other hand, the scientific data are more complex when you are talking about specific breastmilk. Breastmilk of mothers with AIDS (not HIV, but AIDS)? Pretty clear cut scientific recommendation that formula is safer. What about breastmilk of depressed mothers prescribed an antidepressant? Pretty difficult case to call, given the evidence that's out there now. How much does the idea of giving your baby a seizure scare you? And what about the studies showing maternal cortisol levels influence baby temperment?

As an immunologist, I know there are many tangible benefits to breastfeeding, particularly with regard to infection. At the same time, I know that many of the benefits and risks of either feeding approach are overstated by people with a bias on one side or the other. It's actually an area where science has failed the average mom pretty spectacularly.

Thank you, Becca, as always, for a thoughtful, informative comment. You raise some points that had not occurred to me!

As the father of a happily breastfed infant, I really dislike the active promotion of formula, but....

I know two mothers who tried to breastfeed and couldn't produce enough milk. Their doctors told them it was best for their babies to use formula. They got a lot of flack for it. There is a real culture of shame that makes mothers feel that they are failures for using formula.

It is nice for them to know that there is research going on out there to ensure that formula is as good as it can be, and that mothers who need to use formula can feel good about how they are caring for their babies.

By interested (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

I don't think you are right about overstating. In fact on my blog we are just discussing studies that show that breastfeeding helps avoid mental illness in later life.

I'm looking at these studies and for the life of me I just don't see where the idea they are overstating the claims is coming from.