Nestle markets coffee creamer to illiterate mothers who mistake it for infant formula.

September 8, 2011

In a recent blog I informed readers that Save The Children and a long list of other humanitarian non-profits have taken a public stand against the marketing practices of the Swiss food company Nestle.  They charge that Nestle is again marketing products that entice parents in developing countries to cease breastfeeding their children.  That practice violates provisions of the World Health organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.

(Nearly thirty years ago Nestle faced similar accusations and was confronted with a worldwide boycott of company products).

In 2010, before I learned of Save the Children’s opposition to Nestlé’s practices, I brought home from Laos a can of the company’s coffee creamer to show to friends (People that I knew were old enough to remember the charges leveled against Nestle back in the early eighties). There were things about that can of creamer that I found alarming- things reminiscent of past Nestle abuses.

But… I’m getting ahead of myself.  Here’s some essential background information:

Nestle manufactures a coffee creamer that is sold throughout Laos under the name “Bear Brand.”  This product lacks nutritional value that would qualify it as a substitute for breast milk, or as a food supplement beneficial to infants.  The creamer’s main ingredient is sugar (44%) followed by milk solids and palm oil.

But, as the accompanying photograph shows, the can’s label features an appealing image of a loving mother bear cradling her infant cub.  To my eye, the illustration communicates that the can’s contents should be associated with feeding and nurturing of the young.  (It certainly communicates nothing about using the product as an additive to coffee or tea!)

Unfortunately, in Laos some parents who want to provide their children good nutrition assume that this product is a healthy food for infants.  It is, after all, a product marketed by a wealthy, healthy, western nation whose quality of life is envied throughout the world.  And…there is that charming mother bear nursing her cub.

Mothers buy the creamer, dilute it with water, (often from an unhealthy source) and feed it to their children in the mistaken belief that they are replacing or supplementing breast milk with a superior food.

Physicians I’ve met in rural areas of northern Laos tell me that while treating infants for malnutrition they have discovered that some parents, in an attempt to restore their underweight children to good health, have put them on a diet of diluted creamer.  Ironically, those well-intentioned parents fed their infants a product so inferior to breast milk that the children steadily became ever more malnourished.

One physician submitted this report:

In November 2008, a 6-month-old female infant was admitted to the provincial hospital of Luang Namtha with a 6-day history of watery diarrhoea, anorexia, fever, and underlying severe malnutrition. She was the second adopted child of a Hmong family. The parents are farmers living in a remote area.

They bought 10 cans of the same red label Bear Brand coffee creamer (0.80 $ per can) in May 2008 in her first month of age. The infant was fed coffee creamer and boiled water for the first 3 months, 1 can every 3 days. Relatives had told the parents that this product would be good for children, which was reinforced by the logo of a baby bear drinking milk from the mother bear.

In June 2008, the parents were unable to find cans of this type in the local district market and changed to a slightly cheaper brand (Palace, Daily Foods Co., Thailand, 0.69$) with a written message in Thai language: not to be fed to children under 1 year.

They had not read the message, did not know Thai language, and the mother is illiterate. The seller told them that it could be given to children.

The infant presented with diarrhoea and kwashiorkor and died with complications of severe malnutrition, diarrhoea and infection.

Nestle knows that these misunderstanding are happening.  On the can in my possession the company printed this disclaimer:

“Sweetened Beverage Creamer is not to be used as a breast milk substitute.” (Imprudently, the warning is printed in approximately 8-point type).

In a country in which nearly half of all adult females are illiterate, the warning, lost as it is among text written in English and Thai, surely goes unnoticed by most Lao consumers.

In the end, now matter how many written warnings Nestle provides, the text is far less compelling than the prominent pictorial representation.  The charming image of the mother bear nurturing her fit, young cub trumps every other graphic on the label.

We Help War Victims joins Save the Children and other non-profits worldwide in calling on Nestle to change its marketing practices.

10 Responses to “ Nestle markets coffee creamer to illiterate mothers who mistake it for infant formula. ”

  1. Rachel O'Leary on March 17, 2012 at 10:04 am

    If you want to help the campaign to make Nestlé accountable for their actions, please join your local IBFAN group (International Baby Food Action Network.) Or donate, or buy materials from them…. These abuses occur all over the world (including in the USA) and damage babies’ health.

  2. robyn on March 17, 2012 at 10:39 am

    I can’t believe Nestle is doing this. They need to label their products correctly. They should have a label on there that would cover each Countries lanquage, were ever it
    is sold. If it sold the consumer should know what they are buying. Buyer BEWARE.

  3. denise vicky on March 18, 2012 at 2:46 am

    I am desgusted at how nestlie exsploite and violat vunrable mothers who are in poverty and illitarate deciveing them that there coffee formula is for babies. That they are actually causing deaths of babies and yet they are still making fortunes oFf other inocent people who unknowingly by there products therfore supporting them! Makes me sick. They target children being one of the biggest yougart sellers selling chocolate. Which is nowhwere near as good as cadburys.I hope they are heald accountable for decieving these poor people even although it won’t bring back the babies lives.

  4. Daisy04528 on March 18, 2012 at 9:40 am

    Nestle markets their products to EVERYONE! To say they market to this group or that group is insane. This was also brought to public attention in 2009 so your are LATE jumping on this ban crazy wagon!

  5. Happytune on March 19, 2012 at 10:17 am

    @Daisy04528 To say that Nestle market their products to everyone is naive – I’d be very surprised if Nestle didn’t have a highly sophisticated marketing department, who segment their markets extremely carefully, and market in a way that is likely to maximise product purchase. I don’t think it would cause them any particular difficulty to change their packaging in countries with low literacy levels to ensure this sort of mistake doesn’t happen.

  6. Quigleypuff on March 19, 2012 at 10:30 am

    Nestle are being harshly and dramatically criticised for doing something that ALL companies in the same industry are doing. This happened nearly 40 years ago. Time to move on!

  7. Jim on March 19, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    If this were something that happened forty years ago it would be time to move on. But…The can in my photograph is one that I bought within the past two years in a Lao market. I’m encouraged that Nestle has just recently started marketing the creamer in a can with a different label. But it took international pressure to get Nestle to change. Without that pressure, Nestle would still be selling cans with the nursing bear on the label. Sad to say, but Nestle has a huge moral blind spot.

  8. Oliver Doepner on March 20, 2012 at 11:17 pm


    I avoid Nestlé products wherever possible and I agree with the general sentiment expressed in the blog post.

    But to be fair, I wanted to mention that the “Bear Brand” and the nursing bear logo are quite old and stem from the German “Bärenmarke” coffee creamer brand which Nestlé took over in 1970:

    In Germany, everybody knows the brand and the nursing bear logo (which is still used) and knows that it’s just (old-fashioned) coffee creamer.

    So you could give Nestlé the benefit of the doubt that they were not thinking of the possible misunderstandings and just used the logo as is.

    I would like to know if the product was placed on the shelf with formula products or in the coffee creamer isle. That would make quite a difference,


  9. Rachel O'Leary on March 21, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    Oliver, illiterate mothers are often poor. They use a product they think will feed their babies, even if it’s in a different part of the shop. The graphic is very important.
    Nestlé say they abide by the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes drawn up by the World Health Organisation at the request of health professionals – but they don’t. Take a look at the IBFAN website for more details (International Baby Food Action Network.)

  10. Jo Ford on March 26, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    I recently lived in the Transkei, South Africa for three years and this is similar to what was going on there. Nestle is the main formula brand there and through their marketing in these remote areas of SA, they have made mothers believe that their formula is better than breastfeeding. What has happened is that the Mamas who believe that the Western world is better are now stopping breastfeeding and buying Nestle formula instead. The thing is though, they can’t really afford it so they are using more water and diluting it too much (water that is unsafe too). It may not be Nestle’s intention but the way they market the product with images of the western world using it makes mothers believe that this is better than the own milk they are producing. I found this very frustrating while I was there as I breastfed my son until he was two. However, until the marketing changes, this will continue.

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