SINGAPORE — Amid rising milk powder prices, parents TODAY interviewed admitted that they were wary of buying cheaper brands, even though they acknowledged that their concerns were likely to be unfounded, given Singapore’s stringent quality assurance standards for food products.
On Monday, Senior Minister of State of Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon told Parliament that the authorities could take steps to encourage greater price competition among brands here, and to tighten advertising and labelling rules to protect consumers against unsubstantiated nutritional and health claims.
While they were concerned about rising prices, most of the parents interviewed also said they tended to be influenced by factors other than price when choosing milk powder for their children.
Property executive Vincent Gan, 39, said that after trying two different brands of milk powder, he and his wife finally found the right one for their son — an infant formula which friends said contained more natural ingredients and tasted more like actual breast milk — after asking other parents. His seven-month-old son had suffered from baby acne and would at times produce watery stools after taking the first two brands of milk powder.
“The rest of the formulas seemed to be more ‘heaty’, and we were scared that it would not suitable, so we will still use this (brand with more natural ingredients), and there are no side effects,” said Mr Gan, who spends about S$200 each month for milk powder.
Public relations executive Sabrina Tay, 35, found the right milk formula for her four-year-old daughter by trial and error method involving three brands.
Ms Tay said she might not switch to cheaper brands “just because of a few dollars” or attractive advertising, adding: “With or without all these extra vitamins and supplements they (manufacturers) add in (the formula), it still depends on the child’s temperament and preferences.”
Some parents were also glad that the authorities planned to tighten advertising and labelling rule relating to infant formula.
Key account executive Kimberlyn Tan, who has a 14-month-old son, noted that some companies can be very “pro-active” in their marketing efforts — such as stationing representatives at gynaecology clinics, promoting their milk powder at baby fairs, and even delivering free milk powder samples to homes for parents to try them out.
Despite such advertising efforts, Ms Tan, 31, said she would be reluctant to switch to a cheaper brand even if she was offered one, citing fears about tainted milk products.
Responding to TODAY’s queries, an NTUC FairPrice spokesperson Winston Ng said the supermarket chain carries a variety of infant formula brands, including mainstream brands such as Enfamil, Similac, Nestle, Dumex, Frisolac, and also some niche brands such as Bimbosan and Holle. Priced between S$22 and S$97 per kg, these products can range from organic to soy-based or goat’s milk.
However, despite offering more than 150 varieties of the infant formula brand, the “more premium brands” are the most well-received by consumers, said Mr Ng, its senior manager of corporate communications.
But cheaper brands still have a place on the supermarket’s shelves, he added.
“We want to offer variety,” Mr Ng said, citing safety and quality of a brand’s products as the “top most” consideration before FairPrice introduces them into its stores.
Ms Natalie Goh, a member of Singapore Nutrition & Dietetics Association (SNDA) and chief dietitian, Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, noted that all infant formula sold in Singapore must comply and meet the standard and requirements of the Sale of Food Act and its Food Regulation, and this includes the minimum and maximum nutrient composition in an infant formula.
“The goal of establishing a minimum and maximum value is to provide a safe and nutritionally adequate infant formula to meet the normal requirement of non-breastfed infants,” she said.
Dr Liu Mei Hui, lecturer at the Food Science and Technology programme at the National University of Singapore, added that there is no discernible difference among the various brands.
It all depends on which ingredient the companies choose to play up in their marketing efforts, such as highlighting how DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, can boost brain development.
“Some companies take a different marketing angle, like (stressing on boosting) intelligence, immunity, while others talk about complete nutrition, but if you look closely,there’s a large overlap of all the ingredients found in most different brands,” said Dr Liu.
Ms Goh noted that “breastmilk is the best for babies”.
“However, if breastfeeding or feeding breastmilk is not possible, for example due to medical reason, then infant formula is a reasonable alternative,” she said.
Ms Goh added that “a brand that is more expensive does not mean that it is more superior nutritionally”.
“The types of nutrient found in regular cow’s milk-based infant formula are largely similar, except for a few additional ingredients which may be added to certain brands. Unless an infant does not receive the right amount of feeding or has an underlying medical condition, there is no need to worry about inadequate or excessive nutrient intake,” she said.