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What mothers know about – and want from infant formula

When selecting the best infant formula for their infants, what exactly are mothers looking for? Which factors drive their buying behaviour when faced with so many new ingredient choices?

Today, a wide variety of ingredients may appear on the label of infant formulas – a label mothers need to use to determine which product is right for their precious offspring. Alpha-lactalbumin, whey protein hydrolysates, OPN, phospholipids and MFGM are just some of the ingredients being highlighted, giving consumers plenty more to ponder over.

But what value do mothers see in such ingredients? What exactly do they want from infant formula? And what factors are driving their decision-making when it comes to choosing from the wide range of options? These are questions of great interest to those developing the latest infant formula products – and YouGov’s most recent research* in the field provides further food for thought.

State of play
What do we already know about consumer behavior in today’s infant formula market? In 2018, the global market was estimated to be worth over $24 billion (USD). And it is projected to reach $45 billion (USD) by 2025. We already know that more mothers returning to work outside the home is the biggest driver for this market growth. Additionally, lifestyle changes, a rise in the middle-class population, growth in disposable income in emerging economies, such as those in the APEC region, and an increase in awareness about the nutrition obtainable from infant formulas all accelerate market growth.

Growth is one aspect of the market, another is the priority today’s consumers place on health and safety. In 2008, China experienced a major public health catastrophe where infant formula was contaminated. The effect of this event was felt around the world, strengthening the market shares of top-tier producers at the expense of less quality-conscious rivals.

Far less is known about the role played by individual ingredients in consumer choices – and that’s just one of the questions YouGov was able to answer during 2018. We interviewed in excess of 5,600 mothers, aged between 18 and 45, from seven different countries around the globe. And we were seeking insight into two key aspects: What influences their buying decisions when it came to infant formulas and what they know (or think they know) and what is their perception of the ingredients?

Health benefits triumph over costs
The research found that mothers generally value quality over price – that their baby is getting the nutrition needed to grow optimally without compromising on safety. When asked which health benefits would influence their decision to buy a particular product, nearly nine in ten (87%) chose “supports healthy growth”. The next most important health benefits were “helps child’s immune system” (86%), “gut comfort” (85%) and “cognitive development” (82%).

Our survey also found that mothers ranked “high quality” as the top product characteristic they sought (87%). This was followed by “health benefits” (83%), “product brand reputation” and “clinically documented ingredients” (both 75%), with “price” ranked as least important (52%).

Ingredients awareness
When asked which specific infant formula ingredients respondents recognised, lactose came out on top, followed very closely by probiotics. Many also claimed knowledge about other ingredients:  Nearly half of respondents (46%) were aware of whey proteins, 32% knew about whey protein hydrolysates and 31% were aware of phospholipids. Twenty-nine per cent were aware of alpha-lactalbumin, 20% knew of milk fat globule membrane (MFGM) and 16% were aware of osteopontin (OPN).

So, from an ingredient point of view, what do mothers want from infant formulas? Given their documented health benefits, whey ingredients ranked highly. Almost four in ten (38%) of the mothers said they would prefer a product that contained whey proteins, with this figure climbing to 55% in China. Alpha-lactalbumin and whey protein hydrolysates were also popular, both scoring 31%. OPN, phospholipids and MFGM scored 28%, 28% and 25% respectively.

Switching brands
We also looked into how mothers behaved when it comes to infant formula brands. Our research showed openness to switching brands, with only 27% of respondents staying loyal to one brand. Those in the United Kingdom were the most brand-loyal, while respondents in China and Indonesia were far more ready to switch brands.

The results from our survey display a number of differences between countries when it comes to what influences buying behaviour when selecting infant formula. Yet we also identified some common global themes including the prioritisation of quality over price and a focus on health benefits. Overall, it appears mothers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their knowledge and decision-making – a trend that is likely to place added pressure on infant formula product developers.

*Sponsored by Arla Foods Ingredients


Arla Foods Ingredients supports the WHO recommendation for exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life and continued breastfeeding up to the age of two or beyond in combination with nutritionally appropriate complementary foods.

This blog contains material and information intended for B2B customers, suppliers and distributors, and is not intended as information to the final consumers.