In October 2023, International Flavours and Fragrance (IFF), dsf-firmenich and local milk player Mengniu received approval for use of their HMO component in infant formula in China. Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), the third most abundant solid ingredient in breast milk, offer significant benefits for infant development and health by modulating the immune system and supporting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
Chinese regulations now permit the use of HMOs in various formula types, including infant milk formula, follow-up milk, infant formula for special medical purposes, and formulated milk powder for children. This development is especially noteworthy as HMOs, traditionally produced through a fermentation process involving genetically modified organisms, are gaining popularity among Chinese parents. Mintel research shows that 45% of Chinese parents who are feeding their babies aged 0-3 with infant milk formula are attracted to formula with more HMOs.
New infant formula product development in China has seen a decline over the years, with Mintel GNPD indicating a drop from 29% between October 2019 to September 2020 to 14% between October 2022 to September 2023. HMOs have the potential to revitalize the category by bringing infant formula closer to the nutritional composition of breast milk.
HMOs bridge the gap between bottle and breastfeeding
Despite the acknowledged benefits of breastfeeding, significant barriers exist for mothers. For example, at least 10 cities in China are reported not to have nursing rooms in public spaces, making it difficult for working women who want to continue breastfeeding.
HMOs incorporated into infant formula provide a viable alternative to bread feeding, making essential nutrients more accessible to infants. Over half of Chinese parents with children aged 0-3 believe that formula products with ingredients similar to breast milk can replace breastfeeding, according to Mintel research.
Furthermore, the gut-immune axis can strengthen the appeal of HMOs in preventing immunity and digestion issues, which are among the top health issues cited among parents of children aged 4-12 in 2022.
Educating and engaging parents
More than a third of Chinese consumers who have fed babies aged 0-3 with infant milk formula have heard of HMOs, but they are unaware of their function. The Enfamil Brand links its HMO ingredient directly to immune support on the front of pack to help consumers understand its health benefits. In addition, the brand further explains its proprietary blend to help support immune health on its website.
The production of HMOs on an industrial scale requires the use of precision fermentation. While the ingredients are not genetically engineered, there may be traces of genetically engineered material from the microbes used. Besides highlighting functional benefits, brands need to educate consumers about the safety and benefits of using science to improve the nutritional profile of milk formulas.
For example, Nutifood Grow Plus+ combines research from Nutifood Nutrition Research Institute in Sweden and Nutifood’s nutritionists’ knowledge of Vietnamese children’s specifications for healthy growth.
Many parents seek enhanced nutritional content, such as DHA/ARA, prebiotics, and probiotics, in infant milk formula. However, Mintel research shows that 52% of Chinese parents find the nutrition labeling on infant milk formulas confusing. Brands have the opportunity to communicate tangible health advantages associated with specific nutritional components for children.
What we think
The approval of HMOs use in China marks a pivotal moment for the infant formula sector. Bridging the nutritional gap between formula and breast milk, HMOs offer a practical solution for mothers facing challenges in breastfeeding. As brands continue to educate consumers about the safety and benefits of HMOs, the infant formula market may experience a resurgence, ensuring the optimal health of China’s youngest generation.