Nestlé accused of producing baby foods with a high sugar content in poor countries

A baby eating cereal. Supplied.

A baby eating cereal. Supplied.

Published Apr 18, 2024


The Healthy Living Alliance (Heala) has reiterated its call for the ratification of front-of-pack warning label (FOPWL) regulations on foods containing high levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat to protect caregivers in South Africa.

This comes after Nestlé, the world’s largest consumer goods company, was accused of intentionally exposing young children from low- and middle-income countries, like South Africa, to foods containing high sugar levels.

According to new research by Swiss NGP, Public Eye, and the International Baby Food Action Network, two of Nestlé’s best-selling baby food brands sold in Africa and other poorer parts of the world contain high levels of added sugar and honey. The products are sugar free in Switzerland where the company is based.

The researchers found that biscuit-flavoured baby cereal in South Africa contains 6g of sugar while the same product sold in Switzerland is available with no added sugar.

Similarly, in Germany, France and the UK – Nestlé’s main European markets – all formulas for children aged 12 to 36 months sold by the company contain no added sugar.

However, the same product contains more than 5g of sugar a serving in Ethiopia, 6g in Thailand and 4g in South Africa.

Last year, the Department of Health released for public comment Regulation R3337 relating to the labelling and advertising of foodstuffs.

This was in a bid to introduce front-of-pack labelling in South Africa, intended to make it easier for everyone to identify these foods and make better food choices.

Heala is a coalition of civil society organisations that advocates for equitable access to affordable and nutritious food for all in South Africa.

Heala’s acting interim CEO Nzama Mbalati yesterday said the draft regulation made provision for marketing restrictions to be placed on foods bearing a warning label.

Mbalati said that would protect consumers from unfounded health claims made by food producers.

"Heala continues to call for the South African government to strengthen its regulation and policy framework to safeguard the health of the children, which are at risk due to major unhealthy food producers such as Nestlé,” Mbalati said.

“We are calling for government to review and tighten the Marketing Restriction to Children Regulation, urgently promulgate regulations on unhealthy food through FOWPL, enact policies that make schools healthy food zones, and protect academia from conflict of interest due to industry interference.”

South Africa is facing a growing crisis of childhood obesity as one in eight children under the age of 5 are obese, and overconsumption of sugar is believed to be linked to obesity.

Being overweight or obese is a well-known driver of diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Nestlé has not publicly made its position known regarding the new research or issued a statement to clarify the allegations.

However, Heala said Nestlé's has a history of intentionally violating regulations put in place to protect the young.

South Africa has regulations in place that prevent companies from aggressively promoting consumption of ultra-processed food, including products that have a high sugar content.

Mbalati said that in 2021 Nestlé was caught flouting R991 regulations meant to safeguard the nutrition and health of South African children by organising a webinar with a potential give-away to parents who attended.

He said that with low levels of nutrition literacy, it was difficult for ordinary people to make sense of the nutrition labels on the back of food products, adding that parents and caregivers were often lured in by false claims of healthfulness and enrichment made by food producers.

“Unethical behaviour in sales and marketing is something Nestlé is familiar with,” Mbalati said.

“Being the world's largest food and beverage corporation, Nestlé has made a reputable name and made excessive profits for themselves at the expense of children and adults health globally.”