A popular question you might get asked if you have a 4-6 month old baby is: “has she started solids yet?”
In Pakistan, however, you’d be asked “has she started Cerelac yet?”
Hats off to whoever is in charge of marketing baby products over at Nestle, for they have clearly done an excellent job. So ingrained in the process of weaning are Nestle products that people here don’t even refer to weaning as “weaning,” but as “starting Cerelac.”
Before I begin my little rant, I just want to be clear that I’m no health advocate, nor do I follow a strictly healthy diet. I’m your average mother that just wants to be sure I’m making informed choices about what to feed my baby, and I have always taken an interest in ingredients and what goes into things I eat. What follows is just my viewpoint, and by no means a judgement towards anyone that uses and enjoys the products mentioned!
So… Cerelac. Where shall I start?
Cerelac is the brand name for Nestle’s baby cereal, which has a scant Wikipedia page if you want to know where it is sold around the world. Before having my baby, I think I rather naively assumed that all baby products are somewhat “healthy.” Surely the market is strictly regulated, right? Well, in the UK that is true to an extent; food colourings and artificial sweetners, for example, are banned from infant food by legislation (I don’t have any knowledge of the situation in other countries).
Cerelac is available in the UK in larger supermarkets, but only in the “Middle Eastern” or “Asian” sections (i.e. as an imported product); its not sold in the normal baby food aisles and is not really well-known. Here in Pakistan, however, it is pretty much the ONLY cereal you’ll find in the baby food section of a supermarket.
On my first grocery shop after coming back here with baby in tow, I actually had Cerelac down on my shopping list to buy. But when I picked up a box and, out of habit, flipped it over to check the ingredients, I found that it contains sugar.
Sugar? In baby food?! In a country with one of the world’s highest proportion of Type 2 Diabetes, people are giving added-sugar to their babies as a first food?
Here is what Wikipedia has to say about sucrose (unless you want to get really technical, that’s pretty much a fancy word for sugar, by the way):
Studies have indicated potential links between consumption of free sugars including sucrose (particularly prevalent in processed foods) and health hazards, including obesity and tooth decay.
A diet rich in sucrose may lead to gout as it raises the level of insulin, which prevents excretion of uric acid from the body.
That’s just a snippet. Go on to the Wikipedia page on sugar to read about its possible contribution to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hyperactivity, Alzheimer’s disease, and more.
I put the box back and decided to buy oats and simply make porridge from scratch at home instead. But that was not the end of that. I was baffled by the amount of people that kept asking me if my daughter was eating Cerelac yet. There was real excitement in their eyes as they wondered if Baby K had embarked on this special journey yet, and joined all the other babies in Cerelac land!
What baffled me even more is the shock and horror on people’s faces when I would say… no.
To make matters worse, Baby K is not a “plump” baby. She’s quite slender and tall! So of course, I always have to hear people tell me “she looks so kamzor (weak)” followed by knowing glances at each other when they find out the poor child has been deprived of Cerelac.
At first, I would try to reason with people: “her birth weight wasn’t very high, so accordingly, we never expected her to be bigger than she is,” or “she’s very, very energetic and active and is probably burning up everything she consumes!” It didn’t matter what I’d say; people just couldn’t (still cannot) comprehend why I am so adamant about not introducing added-sugar into her diet for as long as I can.
The “no sugar” thing
In case you too are wondering, I’m a little overly obsessed with this because Baby K has been born to parents with Type 2 diabetes running on both sides of their families. Add to that all the information out there on how addictive sugar actually is, as well as countless people telling stories about giving up sugar and noticing huge changes in their lives!
I’m not unrealistic; I know that as she gets older, she will end up tasting things like chocolate and ice-cream that loving relatives will want to spoil her with. I’m not going to forbid her from consuming anything with sugar in it! But… I just want to give her a good start on her food journey, that’s all.
There is a wealth of “good food” for her to try, from naturally sweet and delicious fruits, to vegetables that even I have discovered can taste great during this weaning journey (roasted beets, anyone?!) There is no actual NEED for sugar that I am purposely depriving her of.
But… try and tell that to people in Pakistan. Just try. I have.
Anyway, I digress. Back to Cerelac.
Nestle and their clever marketing
What has irked me into writing this post is the fact that Nestle has, in essence, manipulated mothers into believing they should/must give their children Cerelac because it is so healthy and good for them. Yes, manipulated and no, I’m not exaggerating.
Take the ads for Cerelac, for example. They feature famous Pakistani actresses, known and loved by your average Pakistani mother, but the child they are feeding in the ad is never actually their own. For a long time, Aiza Khan was the face of Cerelac.
Aiza later went on to marry another actor, and so had a widely publicised wedding. She had no children at the time of the Cerelac ad. So why would Nestle choose her? Because they know Pakistani women will buy into the idea of Aiza feeding her baby Cerelac; it doesn’t matter if the baby doesn’t actually exist. For girls that want to be like Aiza, or rather like the characters Aiza plays in her incredibly popular TV dramas, this is a way to.
Now, Syra Shahroz is the face of Cerelac—an even cleverer choice on the part of Nestle. Syra is also married to a Pakistani actor, and its quite well known that they recently had a baby. Therefore, most people assume the baby in the ad is actually her own.
I know that it isn’t simply because of her instagram feed. Her own baby looks completely different. In fact, Syra’s baby reminds me a lot of Baby K: slender, small, cute little thing. I pointed out a photo of said baby to my mother-in-law who was adamant that the plump Cerelac baby was Syra’s own, and even she admitted that they would never have used her real baby. Why? Because Cerelac babies are chubby, round, healthy!
Women in Pakistan LOVE Pakistani dramas, which are pretty well-known all over the subcontinent for being very well-made. To me, Nestle using that to sell baby food is quite manipulative. If it was anything else being sold, I might not be so stringent with my expectations, but when it comes to baby food, I feel that it is crucial we draw a line. We are talking about tiny human beings that are completely at the mercy of adults for their every need, and most importantly, how we fulfil their needs and what we feed them now will set them on a path for the rest of their lives. That is a huge responsibility. For corporations to find room to make a profit out of that is something that should be tightly regulated.
Am I against Cerelac altogether?
In short, no.
Of course, I know of countless children raised eating Cerelac (my husband included) who are just fine and healthy as adults. I am in no way claiming Nestle is poisoning our children(!) nor do I deny that given the opportunity to tell their side of the story, Nestle would put up a strong and convincing argument.
My problem is with the perception they have created, and the fact that they are suggesting Cerelac is just as good, or better than anything else you can and should feed your child during their weaning journey. Just take a look at the “feeding guide” on the box:
They suggest feeding a 6-month old baby Cerelac two to three times a day, starting off with one tablespoon of this sucrose-laden cereal, and working your way up to FOUR! When you start your baby off on solids, it takes a while before you get to the stage where your baby is eating that much and that often anyway. So can you imagine what happens when you persevere with JUST Cerelac during that time, and no other fruits and vegetables, and have basically gotten your baby used to (and probably addicted to) “sweet” sugary tastes before they’ve even had a chance to explore anything else?!
At the very least, they should scrap their “feeding guide” and leave it at instructions on how to make up the cereal. Surely babies don’t need cereal more than ONCE a day?! But of course… the more of it they eat, the quicker the box is empty, the more you need to buy…
In countries like Pakistan, Nestle have taken advantage of the lack of information available to parents about nutrition. This isn’t the first time they’ve done something like this. Anyone remember this article about how they convinced mothers to supplement breast milk with formula, in the days before the WHO issued its breastfeeding guidelines?
To conclude, here is an excellent, fact-based, post about baby cereals in general that can help you make an informed choice.