India is among the 12 low-and-middle countries where Switzerland-based FMCG brand Nestle sells baby food products which contain “high levels” of added sugar. In Switzerland, where Nestlé is headquartered, such products are sold with no added sugar. These similar products are also sold with no added sugar in other key markets like Germany, France and the UK.

Nestlé brands these baby-food brands as “healthy” products, which points to the Swiss food giant's “hypocrisy and deceptive marketing”, says a report by Public Eye, a Swiss investigative organisation, and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN).

"In India, where sales surpassed $250 million in 2022, all Cerelac baby cereals contain added sugar, on average nearly 3 grams per serving," says the report.

Nestle sells a total of 15 Cerelac baby products in India, of which all contain added sugar, with around 2.7 gm of added sugar per serving. The number is the highest in other lower and middle-income countries, with the Philippines, Nigeria, and Senegal in the top three. Added sugar per serving in the Philippines stands at 7.3 gm per serving, Nigeria stood at 6.8 gm, while in Senegal, it was recorded at 5.9 gm.

The same situation prevails in South Africa, the main market on the African continent, where all Cerelac baby cereals contain four grams or more of added sugar per serving. In Brazil, the world’s second-largest market, with sales of around $150 million in 2022, three-quarters of Cerelac baby cereals (known as Mucilon in the country) contain added sugar, on average 3 grams per serving.

Other countries where the company sells Cerelac baby cereals with added sugar per serving are Vietnam (5.4 gm), Ethiopia (5.2 gm), Indonesia (3.8 gm), Bangladesh (3.3 gm), Thailand (3.2 gm), and Pakistan (2.7 gm).

“On the contrary, in Germany, France and the UK – Nestlé’s main European markets – all formulas for young children aged 12-36 months sold by the company contain no added sugar,” says the report, adding that while some infant cereals for young children over one-year-old contain added sugar, cereals for babies aged six months do not.

The paediatricians and child nutrition experts interviewed by Public Eye denounce such double standards. “This is a big concern,” comments Rodrigo Vianna, epidemiologist and Professor at the Department of Nutrition of the Federal University of Paraíba in Brazil. “Sugar should not be added to foods offered to babies and young children because it is unnecessary and highly addictive. Children get used to the sweet taste and start looking for more sugary foods, starting a negative cycle that increases the risk of nutrition-based disorders in adult life. These include obesity and other chronic non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes or high blood pressure,” laments the expert.

Notably, the food giant controls 20% of the baby food market, valued at nearly $70 billion. With more than $2.5 billion in world sales in 2022, Cerelac and Nido are some of Nestlé’s best-selling baby-food brands in low- and middle-income countries. The report says Nestle aggressively advertises these products as “essential” to children’s healthy development in its main markets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Public Eye and IBFAN scrutinised around 150 products sold by the food giant in lower-income countries. “Almost all the Cerelac infant cereals examined contain added sugar – nearly 4 grams per serving on average, equal to roughly a sugar cube – although they are targeted at babies from six months of age.”

The WHO has also warned that exposure to sugar early in life can create a life-long preference for sugary products that increases the risk of developing obesity and other chronic illnesses. Since 2022, the UN agency has been calling for a ban on added sugar in products for babies and young children under three years of age.

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