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Food Safety Focus (80th Issue, March 2013) – Food Safety Platform

Micronutrients in Formula Products and Prepackaged Foods for Infants and Young Children

Reported by Dr Violette LIN, Scientific Officer,
Risk Assessment Section,
Centre for Food Safety

In the previous issues, we have discussed the macronutrients and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in formula products for infants and young children (0-36 months). In this issue, we will look at vitamins and minerals in these products and in prepackaged foods for children aged 6-36 months as complementary (weaning) foods or part of a well-balanced diet.

Optimal Intake of Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients, that are needed in small amounts but are essential for growth, development and normal body functions. During infancy and early childhood, the requirement for micronutrients is high relative to their body size to meet the need for rapid growth and development. A well nourished lactating mother will generally provide adequate micronutrients for full-term infants 0-6 months through breastmilk. Children 6-24 months enter the stage of transitional feeding. They progress to having regular family meals and eating a balanced diet of variety and quality to obtain optimal nutrients.

Functions of some vitamins and minerals provided in a formula product
Functions of some vitamins and minerals provided in a formula product.

The World Health Organization recommends infants to be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, and thereafter receive complementary foods while breastfeeding continues for up to two years of age or beyond. When mothers choose formula products (include infant formula and follow-up formula) over breastfeeding for various reasons, and parents/caregivers choose commercial over home-made weaning foods for convenience sake, they should be aware that too much of some nutrients in these products is as harmful as not enough. For example, excessive sodium intake may lead to dehydration as a result of high blood sodium levels, a tendency to prefer salty food and elevated blood pressure in the long run.

Choose a Formula Product

Formula products are essentially formulated with reference to the nutritional composition of breastmilk which is considered the best for babies. Manufacturers have to adhere to the national or international standards. The Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) sets the minimum and maximum levels of some vitamins and minerals, and requires manufacturers to declare their contents on the label of both formulae.

Infants 0-6 months: All infant formulae shall have a composition meeting the normal nutritional requirements of full-term infants when used as the sole source of nutrition. Parents/caregivers may choose anyone meeting the Codex requirement unless a child has a medical condition that requires a special formula.

Children 6-36 months: As a substantial amount and a variety of complementary foods are consumed, milk intake can be decreased. Infants 6-12 months of age can continue to consume infant formula, or follow-up formulae meeting the national or international requirements including the Codex.

Choose a Prepackaged Weaning Food

The Department of Health (DH) and many overseas health authorities recommend the use of home-prepared weaning foods over the commercial ones in the transition to a family diet consisting of foods with a variety of tastes, appearances, flavours and textures. This can also help reduce the likelihood of children becoming fussy eaters. Conversely, commercial weaning foods in jars/ packets may have limited textures and flavours.

As for micronutrients, the Codex has requirements on the maximum level of sodium for all cereal-based (e.g. rice-based milk cereal, congee, rusks, biscuits) and other (e.g. fruit juice/puree) foods for children aged 6-36 months. Requirements on vitamin B1 level are also provided for all cereal-based foods; whereas requirements on calcium, vitamins A and/or D level are given to some cereal-based foods. Read the nutrition label to make a better choice.

Parents/caregivers may visit the DH's website for recommendations on formula milk feeding for young children and preparation of home-made complementary food.