By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 09/03/2016

Baby formula that supposedly reduces a baby’s immune response to cows’ milk doesn’t work and international guidelines should stop recommending the products, scientists say.

Hydrolysed infant milk formula – marked with ‘HA’ on the tin – is recommended in many countries to lower the risk of allergic diseases in children, but a systematic review published today in The BMJ found no evidence for such an effect.

Allergic and autoimmune diseases are afflicting more children in many countries and are leading causes of chronic illness among young people. Some evidence suggests early dietary exposure in infants, such as intact cows’ milk protein in infant formula, could increase the risk of these diseases.

Several countries spanning North America, Australasia and Europe have guidelines recommending hydrolysed cows’ milk formula in place of standard infant formula, for disease prevention.

Imperial College London’s Robert Boyle lead a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies between 1946 and 2015 looking for a link between diet and later disease. They found no consistent evidence that partially or extensively hydrolysed milk formula prevents allergic or autoimmune disease in infants.

The trials they reviewed included hydrolysed cows’ milk formula compared with another hydrolysed formula, human breast milk or a standard cows’ milk formula. Common allergic conditions such as asthma and eczema, food allergies and the autoimmune disease type 1 diabetes were reported.

The review found no consistent evidence that partially or extensively hydrolysed formula played a protective role in infants, which conflicts with international guidelines and a previous Cochrane review that suggested the formula could prevent cows’ milk allergy.

In an accompanying editorial, Caroline Lodge and colleagues from the University of Melbourne wrote that it seemed hydrolysed formulas were recommended in the hope they might prevent allergic disease on the basis that they are unlikely to do any harm.

“It is now time for this evidence to be used for updating and clarifying current recommendations and guidelines. Furthermore, we encourage industry to pursue development of effective allergy reducing infant formulas and call for further transparent and well-conducted studies in this area,” they concluded.

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Featured image: Flickr CC, William Andrus.

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