How Nestlé’s science-based approach is shaping the future of infant and maternal nutrition

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Science and innovation is defining the future of infant and maternal product development / GettyImages-FarmVeld
Science and innovation is defining the future of infant and maternal product development / GettyImages-FarmVeld

Related tags Infant formula maternal nutrition

Nestlé has deep roots in the childhood nutrition category and its science-based focus is driving fresh and innovative approaches. FoodNavigator speaks to Nestlé SVP and head of Nutrition Thierry Philardeau about what he believes the future will hold for infant and maternal nutrition.

Nestlé has been in the early childhood nutrition business from the beginning. In 1867, Henri Nestlé worked alongside doctors and scientists to develop the first complete baby food produced on a large scale. At a time when industrialisation and urbalisation was transforming society, this nutritional solution helped meet the rapidly evolving needs of infants and their mothers.

“Henri Nestlé saved the life of a premature baby who could not be breastfed. With his training as a pharmacist, working alongside doctors and scientists, he used quality ingredients and the latest scientific research to develop an innovative, nutritionally-balanced food for babies. Today, Henri Nestlé’s science-based innovation mindset continues to shape and drive our company,”​ the head of Nestlé’s Nutrition business, Thierry Philardeau, reflected.

What's 'the best possible nutritional start’?

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and introduction of nutritionally-adequate and safe complementary foods at six months, together with continued breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond.

This is an approach supported by Nestlé. While the company has come under frequent fire for its marketing of infant feed, Philardeau emphasised the lengths the multinational has gone to as a responsible operator.

“We believe breast milk is the ideal nutrition for babies,”​ Philardeau told FoodNavigator. “To be worthy of the trust that millions of families place in us, we do not interfere with mothers’ desire to breastfeed and have implemented industry-leading policies on responsible marketing of breast milk substitutes.”

Nestlé, he noted, was the first company to voluntarily implement the WHO International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes through a ‘detailed corporate policy’. The company also complies with relevant World Health Assembly resolutions and it has applied its own ‘stringent policy’ in 152 ‘higher-risk countries’, Philardeau detailed.

“Over the past 40 years, we have dedicated ourselves to improving our global marketing practices. We invest substantial resources to ensure marketing of breast milk substitutes complies with the aim and principles of the Nestlé Policy and Procedures for the Implementation of the WHO International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. All of our infant nutrition staff take part in extensive training to ensure they fully understand and respect the aims and principles of the WHO Code.”

This is a process of continual improvement and re-evaluation. Just last month, Nestlé revealed it will re-examine its policy and procedures regarding the marketing of breast milk substitutes​ after a 2019 internal report identified 107 instances of non-compliance. 

“To date, all cases have been corrected,”​ the report stated. “Corrective actions for Nestlé cases mainly consisted of strengthening processes or re-training employees.”

GettyImages-paffy69 - breast feeding baby
Nestle says breast milk is best for infant development / Pic: GettyImages-paffy69

Nevertheless, Nestlé continues to face criticism over its infant formula business. For instance, a 2019 report by Changing Markets Foundation and SumOfUs​ accused the firm of continuing to provide contradictory advice or use of claims prohibited by the WHO Marketing Code. However, Philardeau stressed the company’s efforts around responsible marketing have also been recognised externally. 

In 2016, Nestlé ranked first in the Access to Nutrition Index (ATNI) — which assesses and ranks the world’s largest manufacturers on their nutrition-related commitments, practices and performance — for its marketing of breast milk substitutes. In 2018, the company was ranked second. It was also the first infant formula manufacturer included in the FTSE4Good Index, the only responsible investment index to defined objective criteria on the responsible marketing of breast milk substitutes.

The ‘breast is best’ mantra is certainly not up for debate – but Nestlé wants to play an important role in supporting the nutrition of babies whose mothers either can’t or choose not to breastfeed.

“It is a privilege to accompany millions of parents, babies and caregivers around the world on the journey of the first 1000 days of life and our aim is to do all we can to make sure children have the best possible nutritional start in life. Our wide range of infant formulas help nourish babies who cannot be breastfed, and for older babies, we offer growing up milk to support the optimal nutrient intake during the transition to solid foods. We also have solutions for specific needs like allergies or for pre-term babies. Our baby food and infant cereals offer age-appropriate nutrition for babies above six months of age,”​ Philardeau explained.

R&D investment for improved health outcomes

The first 1000 days of life, from conception to a child’s second birthday, has come to be understood as a pivotal period for healthy development. Philardeau told us nutrition at this stage can have a ‘profound impact’ on long-term health, growth and development.

“Early infancy is a unique window of opportunity to nurture the growth and development of children and positively influence their health outcomes in the long run. However, millions of babies around the world do not receive the necessary nutrition during their first 1000 days. For more than 150 years, we have been motivated by the opportunity to help give babies the best possible start and support parents during this critical time.

“Parents are not only looking for the best possible nutrition for their infants, but they are also looking for high quality, safe, science-based products made from natural and organic ingredients.”

iStock - Infant formula nutrition
Patents look for good nutrition, quality and safety when buying infant formula / Pic: iStock

In the spirit of Henri Nestlé, the Swiss food giant continues to leverage its scientific know-how and R&D clout to drive innovation that delivers on all fronts. The company spends more than CHF1.7 billion on research and development each year.

“Science is the key driver of our innovation and product development. We have the largest scientific network in the food industry, dedicated to studying the links between nutrition and health at various stages of life—from expectant mothers, babies, and children through the aging population,”​ Philardeau elaborated.

On maternal and infant nutrition, the company boasts a strong track record of research. “We have conducted more than 80 maternal and infant nutrition clinical trials with independent institutions around the world, patented 161 infant formula innovations and published 136 peer-reviewed scientific papers on infant nutrition over the last 10 years,”​ Philardeau elaborated.

So, what research seams are likely to yield the most exciting results?

“The areas of research where we see most progress are the understanding of human milk composition; the effect of epigenetics on health; and how the microbiome shapes infant health and development,”​ Philardeau revealed.

Cutting-edge R&D in infant nutrition

Nestlé is concentrating its efforts on advancing its understanding of breast milk to improve the performance of its breast milk substitutes.

GettyImages-Haydar Dogramaci - scientist
Scientific advancements are leading innovation / Pic: GettyImages-Haydar Dogramaci

“We are focused on understanding breast milk and its unique advantages, including composition, nutritional quality, and evolution. In our research, we look at certain nutrients, such as proteins, and how they evolve over time to match the requirements of infants. We also look at the different carbohydrates found in breast milk, including those with nutritional value and those which clearly provide protective benefits to the infant, in part by influencing the intestinal bacteria (microbiota) of babies in early life. Some of our work focuses on the effects of early nutrition, including the impact of breastfeeding on cognitive development and myelination (the development of connections between nerve cells in the brain) in infants.”

As part of this drive, Nestlé launched Lactation for Infant Feeding Expertise (LiFE), a research initiative with the aim of consolidating 16 different human milk research studies across 20 countries, in 2019.

“The scientific findings of our research are used directly in our product development,”​ Philardeau said, pointing to the fact that, in 1963, Nestlé launched the first infant formula with demineralized whey to provide protein and mineral content similar to that of breast milk.

“Often, as the science behind these new ingredients becomes clearer, regulators decide that they should be included in all formulas. For example, companies first added Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) to formula in 2004 to promote eye and brain development, especially in premature infants. From 2020, the European Union will require all formulas to contain DHA,”​ he noted.

Philardeau believes that the evolving understanding of human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) will play an increasingly important role in the sector – and Nestlé has already played a pioneering role in the development of the science and product development bringing HMOs to the market.

“The introduction of HMOs to formula is an example of our science-based innovation. HMOs are the third most abundant solid component in human milk after fat and lactose. They play a vital role in an infant’s healthy development and wellbeing by supporting their still immature immune system and promoting a healthy gut flora.

“Following 30 years of research, we achieved a scientific breakthrough to develop formula containing identical copies of human milk oligosaccharides, which are key components of breastmilk. We identified two molecules that are structurally identical to the HMOs, 2'-Fucosyllactose (2'-FL) and Lacto-N-Neotetraose (LNnT) found in breastmilk. Clinical evidence has shown that they support immunity and the development of the microbiome. Following multiple clinical trials demonstrating the suitability and safety, as well as outcomes suggesting their potential benefits, we now have a range of formulas containing these ingredients. Currently, depending on geography, we have products with one or both of 2’FL and LNnT in over 60 countries.”

There is still ‘more to learn’ about HMOs and research efforts continue apace. “We are continuing our efforts to invest in research in collaboration with academic institutions to learn more about the different types of HMOs and the role they play in infant health and development. This understanding will help to advance the scientific field, as well as inform the development of science-based concepts for infants,”​ Philardeau told us.

Don’t forget about mum

GettyImages-Youngoldman pregnant woman pregnancy
Strong evidence speaks to the sway maternal nutrition has on infant development / Pic: GettyImages-Youngoldman

Nestlé is also active in the field of maternal nutrition, an area that is increasingly being linked to the health outcomes of children.

“There is now also a substantial body of evidence supporting maternal diet having a direct influence on the infant from conception, throughout pregnancy and during breastfeeding. Mums need support in optimal nutrition and health outcomes related to their pregnancy as well as afterwards during breastfeeding,”​ Philardeau said.

“A mother’s diet is vitally important, as good nutrition during pregnancy and lactation can impact her baby’s future health and development. During pregnancy, a mother dedicates her physical resources to her growing baby, and her growing baby relies on her for everything needed to develop. Pregnant women need 50% more folic acid and zinc to create an environment that best supports a baby’s growth and nervous system development. Each of the 140 million women who give birth globally each year runs the risk of developing nutrient deficiencies. Approximately half of them are nutritionally unprepared for pregnancy, as many are undernourished, overweight or obese.

“We are there for mums before and during pregnancy as well as after giving birth with our wide selection of products and services. Our brands, Nestlé MOM&me and Materna, are specially designed to cater to the specific nutritional needs of both mum and infant from conception, throughout pregnancy, and during breastfeeding.”

Under the Materna brand, for example, Nestlé has launched a food supplement, Materna Opti-Lac, that contains a patented probiotic strain L. Fermentum LC40, shown to reduce the risk of breast pain and mastitis during breastfeeding. The Materna range is enriched with folic acid and designed to provide other key vitamins, minerals and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

As in infant nutrition, Nestlé’s maternal nutrition offering continues to benefit from science-backed R&D. For instance, the company’s scientists have partnered with EpiGen, a global research consortium in this field, to examine how the diets and lifestyles of pregnant women influence epigenetic changes and impact their children’s future growth and health. “An additional priority in this field is to investigate how diets can affect our learning and mental development by supporting the formation of neural connections,”​ Nestlé’s head of nutrition added.

The future of infant and maternal nutrition: Personalisation

Research and development in infant and maternal nutrition continues to push the envelope on what manufacturers of breast milk substitutes are able to achieve.

Looking to the future, Philardeau predicted that personalised nutrition strategies will be a game-changing breakthrough in the category.

“One trend of interest is personalised nutrition. Understanding the evolution of microbiome and its impact on health and development during the first 1000 days of life will help us develop more personalised nutritional solutions.

“We are also currently exploring how a mother’s diet can influence nutrients found in breast milk, in order to help us develop personalised solutions for mothers during preconception, pregnancy and while breastfeeding.”

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