Parents and nutritionists are up in arms about a line of designer toddler drinks containing mostly milk and sugar that are aimed at children as young as 1 year old.
They say the health claims of Mead Johnson's Enfagrow Premium -- a "toddler formula" for children 12 to 36 months old -- are unproven. The products contain more than 25 additives to boost growth, brain development and immunity for the kids, but some say the dollops of added sugar for flavoring may contribute to the childhood obesity epidemic.
The company responded to the firestorm of criticism by dropping its new chocolate-flavored product, which critics have considered the worst offender with 19 grams of sugar.
The chocolate version was discontinued after four months because of "the whole emotional evocative nature of chocolate," said Mead Johnson spokesman Chris Perille. "It's more associated with candy and sweets and things potentially not as beneficial. Flavor was more in conflict with a nutritious product."
In a prepared statement Wednesday, Mead Johnson said there had been "some misunderstanding and mischaracterization regarding the intended consumer" of the product. "The resulting debate has distracted attention from the overall benefits of the brand."
But the company still intends to sell its vanilla-flavored Enfagrow, which has 16 to 17 grams of sugar overall, and three other unflavored versions with 10 to 11 grams, targeting so-called "picky eaters" who could use a nutritional supplement.
The company introduced an unflavored product, "Next Step," in 1994. Later it was rebranded as Enfagrow. Last July the company launched its vanilla flavor and chocolate was added in February, according to Perille.
Mead Johnson sells all these products as "science-based" and is marketing Enfagrow for children ages 1 to 3, who have been weaned off breast milk or infant formula and "still need nutritional support."
Its main ingredients are, in this order: whole milk, nonfat milk and sugar. Product labeling indicates the formula is fortified with vitamins "for healthy growth;" Omega-3 DHA and iron, "building blocks of the brain;" and prebiotics and antioxidants to "support the immune system."
It's not cheap: $18.99 for 29 ounces. The can makes 22 servings (one-quarter cup of powder mixed with six ounces water) -- about 86 cents for a glass of fortified milk, sugar and flavoring.
In its advertising, the company notes that "85 percent of brain growth" happens before age 3. The poster child for the advertising, a chunky toddler in red Converses, seems to echo that claim as he points to a nutritional list with a saw cutting a log over his head.
"It's got three health claims and if somebody looks at it, they'll think, 'Oh if I feed my child this product he will be smart, immune and grow. My kid is a picky eater, he'll love this,'" said Marion Nestle, professor of food studies and public health at New York University, who has launched a campaign to get the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to stop Mead Johnson's health claims.
"This is a completely unnecessary product," she said. "It's expensive and the first two ingredients are milk and the third is sugar. They could just add a teaspoon of sugar to the milk and get the same thing."