Research shows efforts to educate Australian women on their nutritional needs during and after pregnancy—and provide clear instructions regarding the correct and safe use of infant formula—are falling dangerously short.
It’s generally assumed Australian women planning and experiencing pregnancy realise the importance of eating a nutritious diet, and continuing to provide one for their babies after birth. But if we looked beyond that assumption, what would we find? Do maternal Australian women fully understand their nutritional needs? Are they actually satisfying them? Or their babies’?
The answers, it seems, are not comforting. Recent research conducted by researchers from the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Global Food and Resources, School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, and the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) has revealed: a distinct lack of nutrition knowledge; a vast gulf between positive intent and actual behaviour; and significant problems with infant formula labelling.
The worrying findings are the result of three separate studies. The first aimed to gain a comprehensive understanding of women’s nutrition knowledge, attitudes and practices during pregnancy, and the complex factors influencing their dietary choices.
Data from a large comprehensive online questionnaire completed in 2013 by 857 pregnant women living throughout Australia were analysed, making this the first nationwide study to assess the group’s adherence to current Australian Dietary Guidelines.
“The majority of the women considered their diets healthy,” says lead researcher Dr Lenka Malek from The Centre for Global Food and Resources. “Yet not one consumed the recommended daily servings from all five food groups during pregnancy.
“Their knowledge of, and adherence to, supplement recommendations was also lacking. Only 27% of women adhered to folic acid supplement recommendations, and just 23% to iodine.
“Misconceptions were widespread on the need for supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, iron and calcium; and the majority believed supplements were a more reliable source of nutrients than whole foods.”
The second project, which was conducted by The Centre for Global Food and Resources in partnership with Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), investigated how Australian and New Zealand caregivers of infants aged under 12 months perceive, interpret and use labelling information on infant formula products. A total of 136 caregivers participated in a series of 21 focus group discussions.
The third looked at caregivers’ ability to understand and follow infant formula preparation and storage instructions. Thirty Adelaide-resident caregivers of infants aged up to 12 months, who were providing infant formula, were observed with eye-tracking technology while preparing a formula feed with a product unfamiliar to them, before immediately undergoing interviews.
According to Dr Malek, correct usage of formula is critically important, with around 60% of Australian and New Zealand infants having it in their diets by three months of age.
“We found caregivers commonly experience difficulties using labelling information on infant formula products, particularly when trying to identify and understand key product differences,” she says.
“We also found most caregivers make modifications to formula preparation instructions for efficiency or convenience, and had little awareness of the impact this could have on the safety of the feed.
“Only 43% read the on-package warning advice. Similarly, just 27% read storage instructions, and none looked at the use-by date.”
Dr Malek says insights gained from her team’s research will allow better targeting of dietary intervention strategies for maternal women, and inform changes to the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code infant formula products standard, currently under review.
“Our results have serious implications for all stakeholders—formula-feeding caregivers, policymakers, health professionals, government health agencies, and manufacturers of infant formula products.
“But ultimately we hope it will help efforts to optimise pregnancy and other long-term health outcomes for mums and their babies.”