China: Surge in Protein Milk Powder Demand, May Not Be Good for Babies

The milk powder craze in China might harm babies. (Image:  Pixabay /  CC0 1.0)
The milk powder craze in China might harm babies. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

The COVID-19 outbreak has triggered a huge demand for protein milk powder imported from New Zealand and Australia. Many parents believe that these products have immune-boosting properties that can protect their babies from the CCP coronavirus. However, experts warn that feeding infants with protein milk powder might end up having negative effects.

Milk powder boom in China

The increased demand is largely for two specific products — whey protein powder and lactoferrin powder, both of which are extracted from milk. In March, the export of whey protein milk powder from Australia to China tripled from the previous month to over 1,000 tones. In April, though the volumes declined from March, they remained at high levels when compared to the past several months. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, China used to import about 200 to 400 tons of whey protein powder each month.

How the consumption of these powders affect infants has not been properly researched. The Whey Protein Institute from the U.S. warns people that whey protein should not be fed to infants due to the risk of protein toxicity. Australian and New Zealand authorities say their lactoferrin milk powder products are aimed at adults and are manufactured according to the strictest food standards. The problem starts in China when store owners seek to profit from the huge demand for lactoferrin and other whey proteins — they end up placing these products in kids’ stores and the parents buy the products thinking that it will be beneficial for their children. Most shopkeepers often have no idea that adult protein powders are digested by infants in a different way.

Adult whey protein powders might cause protein toxicity in infants. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

China infant formula market consultant Jane Li believes that businesses in China are marketing dairy-based supplements in a big way in the wake of COVID-19. “Most of these products are imported through legal channels, which is why they are able to be pushed through mum and baby stores… These contract manufacturers are taking advantage of a regulatory loophole that allows them to classify and export these products as regular milk powder or formulated milk powder or beverage drink intended for general consumption… It is a very deliberate way of avoiding strict testing and labeling requirements for infant foods,” he said to Asia One.

Last month, Chinese authorities cracked down on a new protein-based milk powder drink that was becoming popular in Hunan Province. The product was found to contain harmful chemicals. Australian company Jatenergy saw record revenues in the months of February and March due to the increased sale of its lactoferrin products in China. They admitted that Chinese authorities allowed babies to consume lactoferrin if it was processed in infant milk formulas.

Global milk powder market

According to a report by Allied Market Research, the global milk powder market is expected to be worth US$38.08 billion by 2025, clocking a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 4.4 percent between 2018 and 2025. Sales numbers for 2017 stood at US$27.78 billion. The report cites the surge in the use of milk powder in infant foods as one of the drivers that are pushing forward the market.

The milk powder product market will be worth US$38.08 billion by 2025. (Image: ちゅらさん via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

Whole milk powder is expected to garner the biggest share of the market due to it being the most natural form of milk. However, it will be skimmed milk powder that registers the fastest annual growth rate at 5.3 percent. The Asia-Pacific region will remain the dominant market due to the growing demand for milk products from a burgeoning working-class population.

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