September 15, 2008 / 3:28 PM / 9 years ago

Coffee creamer faulted as putting infants at risk

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A brand of coffee creamer that features a logo of a mother bear and cub is being mistakenly fed to infants whose parents think it is a substitute for breast milk, according to researchers in Laos.

Reporting in the medical journal BMJ, they warn that Nestle’s Bear Brand coffee creamer is misleading to parents who do not understand the product labeling.

The Bear Brand markets infant formula that carries a logo of a cartoon mother bear cradling its cub -- and the same logo appears on the brand’s coffee creamer. The coffee creamer packaging does state, in English, Lao and Thai, that it is not a substitute for breast milk, and it bears a picture of an infant bottle with a slash across it.

However, because Laos has dozens of languages and a high rate of illiteracy, many parents may be unable to read the coffee creamer labeling, according to Hubert Barennes and colleagues at the Institut de la Francophonie pour la Médecine Tropicale in Laos.

The researchers decided to study the issue after they discovered that several children they’d seen with protein malnutrition had unwittingly been fed the Bear Brand coffee creamer.

They conducted a survey of 26 Laotian pediatricians and a second one of randomly selected households in five Laos provinces.

Overall, 24 of the pediatricians said that parents “sometimes” or “often” fed the coffee creamer to their babies as a substitute for breast milk. Of the 1,098 Lao adults who were surveyed, nearly half believed that the logo indicated the product was meant for infants.

Moreover, almost one-fifth said they had given the creamer to their own infant.

“The Bear Brand logo’s non-verbal message implies that the product contained is intended for infants,” Barennes and his colleagues write.

“The powerful visual message is not mitigated by the addition of warning text or by the confusing symbol of the feeding bottle with a cross through it.”

“Because of its ease of misinterpretation,” the researchers conclude, “this logo should not be permitted on products that are not infant formula.”

They call for more research to see whether a similar problem exists in other developing countries.

SOURCE: BMJ Online First, September 10, 2008.

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