Spot the difference: Infant formulas with similar nutritional properties nearly two times different in price: HK consumer council

By Tingmin Koe

- Last updated on GMT

Hong Kong Consumer Council recently conducted a nutrition and price analysis on 15 stage one infant formula products sold in the market. ©Getty Images
Hong Kong Consumer Council recently conducted a nutrition and price analysis on 15 stage one infant formula products sold in the market. ©Getty Images

Related tags Hong kong Infant formula Price

Infant formula powders inspected in Hong Kong said to contain similar nutritional composition can differ in price by nearly 100%, a report by the Consumer Council has claimed – but a closer look at their methodology appears they are not necessarily comparing like with like.

The council conducted a study on 15 stage one infant formula powder bought from supermarkets and health products stores between January and February. Thirteen of them are cow milk based, the other two are made from soy protein isolate.

One of the key findings was that brands with similar nutrition composition scores are sold at varying prices.

The nutrition composition score was calculated based on Codex and Hong Kong’s Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) regulations​ and centred around the amount of 33 essential nutrients required in infant formula powder. 

The brands with the lowest and highest price – Meiji at HKD$250 (US$32) and illuma infant formula milk powder from Wyeth’s at HKD$539 (US$69) – both scored four points in terms of the nutrition composition.

Except for these two products, all the other 13 are sold within the range of HKD$299 (US$38) to HKD$398 (US$51).

In terms of average cost per gram, the price of all 15 products ranged from HKD$0.31 (US$0.04) to $0.59 (US$0.07), which is a nearly one-fold difference. 

Taking into consideration factors such as product safety, nutrition value, consistency in product labelling and the actual composition, those with the highest overall score (4.5) were mid-range products.

These products included Cow & Gate Happy Baby from Nutricia, a2 platinum premium, and Similac Isomil soy infant formula from Abbott.  

However, it should be noted that the analysis did not consider the use of advanced ingredients such as human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), probiotics and prebiotics, and their impact on product pricing, the consumer council said when asked by NutraIngredients-Asia.

Impact of HMOs, pre/probiotics

A closer look into the report showed that the most expensive product – Wyeth illuma– contained two types of HMOs, namely 2’-Fucosyllactose (2’FL) and lacto-N-neotetraose (LNnT).

Citing a RCT finding​ published in 2017, the company claims that babies consuming formula with the two HMOs had a lower reported use of antibiotics, lower respiratory tract infection, and bronchitis.

The other HMO product the S-26 Gold SMA, also by Wyeth, costs only HKD$299 per 900g tin. The HMO used in this case is 2’FL. The product had a nutrition composition score of four and an overall score of 4.5.

Similac’s HMO 1 from Abbott costs the same and added 2’FL as well. It scored 4.5 for both its nutrition composition and overall score.

On the other hand, infant formula containing pre/probiotics are mostly mid-range products.

An example is Organic Combiotic from HiPP. Selling at HKD$318 (US$41) per 800g tin, it contains galacto-oligosaccharide (GOS) from lactose and lactic acid culture L. fermentum originally obtained from the breast milk.

Another example is Aptamil’s advanced platinum blend. Containing prebiotics GOS and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) in the ratio of 9:1 and the probiotics BBM-16V, it is sold at HKD$398 (US$51) for a 900g tin.

Labelling discrepancies

The report also found discrepancies in the product labelling and the actual amount of certain nutrients detected.

For instance, HiPP’s combiotic organic infant milk was found to be lacking in several nutrients. The actual content of its L-carnitine, choline, and selenium was 39.5%, 20.7%, and 14% lower than what was stated.

Its actual amount of vitamin B3, iodine, copper, and myo-inositol were also 2.6%, 13.9%, 11%, and 5% lower than the stated value. 

Others, such as Wyeth illuma, was found to have actual vitamin A content that was 21.9% lower than the declared value.

Meiji’s infant formula, on the other hand, had actual vitamin B3 content that was 14% lower than the declared value.

Suspected carcinogen detected

A suspected carcinogen, 3-MCPD, was detected in all 15 products, with the amount ranging from 13ug to 120ug in per kilograms of milk.

China-acquired Australian brand Bellamy’s Organic was found to have contained the highest amount of 3-MCPD, followed by Meiji at 63 ug/kg.

However, the presence of 3-MCPD is not prohibited by existing regulations. 

It should be noted that European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) have set tolerable limits for the amount of 3-MCPD in infant formula.

For EFSA,​ the permitted level is 2ug per kilo body weight, while that of JECFA is 4ug per kilo body weight.

“When consumed in normal amounts (106g of milk powder per day), the amount of 3-MCPD in Bellamy’s Organic is within JECFA’s limits, but has exceeded that of EFSA,”​ the report said. 

The analysis took reference to EFSA and JECFA standards as Hong Kong has not set relevant rules on the permitted levels of 3-MCPD, said the council.

“The analysis made reference to ESFA and JECFA because Europe is one of the largest jurisdictions and JECFA is an international organisation under FAO/WHO.

“They have a relatively good recognition. Many regions also made reference to the studies done by these 2 organisations to set up their own reference levels,”​ the council told us.

Lastly, no mercury, melamine, B1, B2, G1, G2, M1, and harmful bacteria such as salmonellae and Enterobacter sakazakii were detected in all the products. 

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