How investing in breastfeeding efforts can help save the environment | Explained

Some truths are laced with tension. Commercial milk formula food, part of the multibillion-dollar baby food industry, are seen as economic growth planks, worthy of resource and recognition. It is another matter that the formula feeding frenzy is also linked to poor child and maternal health; it generates around 11-14 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions (more than that of eggs, poultry, and vegetables combined); and uses more than 5,000 litres of water during its life cycle. In contrast, breastmilk is economically valuable, leaves a low carbon footprint, and is essential for well-being. Breastfeeding women nourish half the world’s infants and young children. No country, however, accounts for this care work in their GDP figures or national budgets.

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A new challenge mounts against this exclusion. Global health researchers propose to recognise the simple fact that women contribute to sustainable food production, and breastfeeding infrastructures deserve to be invested in as ‘carbon offsets’. This radical reframing benefits not only “the populations in developing countries most burdened by the harms of the commercial milk formula industry”, but also acknowledges “the value of women’s breastfeeding efforts for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions”.

The proposal

The report is part of a special issue of the Bulletin of the WHO. The research was led by Julie Smith from the Australian National University, and published in collaboration with Alive & Thrive at FHI 360 Global Nutrition, the University of Sydney, Munster Technological University, Auckland University of Technology, and the WHO.

The contention is two-fold. One, commercial milk formulas are a maladaptive practice in the context of emerging population and environmental crises. In contrast, breastfeeding is a renewable, economical and an B environmentally friendly natural resource, often neglected in sustainable food production and climate change. The current GDP-growth-based paradigm and food security statistics fail to account for the economic value of breastfeeding women in producing “vast quantities of highly valuable breastmilk”. Globally, 21.9 billion litres of human milk is annually lost because governments fail to invest in supporting breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is valued resourced but still under-valued, a dissonance the authors note in their proposal. “Caring for and nourishing children, including breastfeeding, is highly gendered work that is often ignored and under-valued economically,” co-author hPhillip Baker said..

Two, adequate recognition and resources through international climate change financing “can support new public investments in breastfeeding as a carbon offset, with significant gains and co-benefits for women’s, children’s and planetary health”.

The United Nations Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows lower-middle-income countries to avail financing by high-income countries for new policies and programmes to generate offsets to carbon emissions. The authors argue that the CDM could be a “potential platform” for recognising breastfeeding as a carbon offset. Policies such as funding skilled birth attendance, maternity care, and social protections like paid maternity leave would support higher breastfeeding rates, while also redirecting financial resources away from carbon-emitting activities. 

Breastfeeding, they note, is a timely illustration of how “current thinking and systems undervalue what matters, inequitably distort investment priorities and strengthen commercial drivers of health…”

The beef with breastfeeding substitutes

Research over the years hint at the conservative ecological costs of breastfeeding substitutes. Producing a commercial milk formula requires industry dairy farming for milk production, milk processing, formula manufacturing, transport, packaging, and electricity to heat the milk at a particular temperature. One estimate showed the average water footprint of milk powder is roughly 4700 L/kg6 (the equivalent of almost 140 showers). A 2016 study found emissions from this industry were equivalent to six billion miles of car travel. Water, waste and methane have shaped the prosperous commercial milk formula industry.

The social and health implications were flagged earlier. A boom in milk formula sales in emerging middle-income countries like India was associated with a decline in breastfeeding, a lack of maternity protection for breastfeeding, unregulated company marketing of baby foods and inadequate support of breastfeeding by health services. The WHO recommends newborns are breastfed within the first hour of birth; exclusively breastfed for the first four to six months, and continue to receive breastmilk for up to two years of age. However, less than half of newborns worldwide are breastfed within an hour of birth, and only 44% are exclusively breastfed from birth to six months, according to a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The same analysis found that increased marketing of formulas such as Nestle’s in LMICs “was correlated with a substantial reduction in breastfeeding”. This, in turn, has had a negative impact on infants’ health, studies show.

Commercial milk formulas have a rich history going back to the 19th century; they rose as an alternative to meet the nutrition requirements of infants who could not be breastfed. Today, more than half of the world’s children receive heavily marketed breastmilk substitutes in their first six months of life. Others receive follow-up formulas and “growing up” milk — products considered unnecessary by the WHO.

In India, popular breastmilk substitutes include Lactogen, Cerelac, Nestle, Farex, Dexolac and Similac. The milk substitutes market in India is projected to grow by 18.19% between 2024 and 2028, according to the latest CAGR report.

Breastfeeding and the link to sustainable food infrastructures

Breastfeeding is a natural, renewable resource, and also the “most economical and environmentally friendly way to feed an infant and young child, producing zero garbage, minimal greenhouse gases, and tiny water footprint”, according to the advocacy group Geneva Infant Feeding Association. It is better for the environment even if breastfeeding mothers eat and drink more. A BMJ study showed that exclusive breastfeeding for six months saves an estimated 95-153 kg CO2 equivalent per baby compared with formula feeding. Other economic benefits are derived from the associated infant and maternal health outcomes; nutrition in the early stages of life produces healthier outcomes that use fewer health course resources. Exclusive breastfeeding is a “child’s first immunisation”, the WHO notes, against respiratory infections, obesity, diarrhoeal disease, and other potentially life-threatening ailments.

Conversely, a lack of breastfeeding support is linked to increased disease prevalence in women and children, adding to the healthcare cost and deepening the caregiver burden, according to Roger Mathisen, Alive & Thrive East Asia Pacific Director. In the long run, it also betrays the need for a gender-just transition to sustainable development.

The authors propose a gender lens to build sustainable food infrastructures — scaffoldings critical in reducing disease burdens and greenhouse gas emissions and increasing nutrition and health. The first step? To consider breastfeeding as the “highest quality, local, sustainable first-food system for generations to come”.

“Governments need to better recognise women’s contributions to sustainable food production, including breastmilk, in international and national food balance sheets,” they wrote, batting to alleviate the economic burden and making seen an “invisible form of investment”.

This consideration must seep within the systems of value and measurement adhered to in the international order. New metrics, such as Mothers’ Milk Tool, are being developed to measure the economic contribution of breastfeeding mothers. In India, the annual production of breast milk amounts to $873,755; 14% of milk volume is lost in all three years due to lack of investment.

Considering breastfeeding as a carbon offset could also divert funds from commercial milk formula markets to environments where women operate. Research by urban studies scholar Divya Ravindranath showed the challenges daily wage labourers faced at construction sites in Ahmedabad: women negotiated with surveillance at workplaces, nature of work, quality of alternative care and domestic work, sapping their time and energy to provide exclusive breastfeeding. Investments in this sector could put in place creche services closer to the workplace and “support new public investments” yielding “significant gains and co-benefits for women’s, children’s and planetary health”.

“Considering breastfeeding as a carbon offset isn’t about coercion or shifting climate change responsibility,” said co-author Aoife Long from Munster Technological University. “It’s about directing funds to governments recognising the environmental impact of commercial milk formula markets, facilitating a gender-just transition to sustainable development, and creating an enabling environment for women who wish to breastfeed.”

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Is Guinness really ‘good for you’? | CNN

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Guinness, like other Irish stouts, enjoys a seasonal popularity every St. Patrick’s Day. It has also been touted as being “good for you,” at least by its own advertising posters decades ago.

But can this creamy, rich and filling beer really be added to a list of healthy beverages? Or is its reputation just good marketing? We researched the beer’s history and talked to brewing experts and break out the good, the not-so-great and the ingenuity of Guinness.

The original Guinness is a type of ale known as stout. It’s made from a grist (grain) that includes a large amount of roasted barley, which gives it its intense burnt flavor and very dark color. And though you wouldn’t rank it as healthful as a vegetable, the stouts in general, as well as other beers, may be justified in at least some of their nutritional bragging rights.

According to Charlie Bamforth, distinguished professor emeritus of brewing sciences at the University of California, Davis, most beers contain significant amounts of antioxidants, B vitamins, the mineral silicon (which may help protect against osteoporosis), soluble fiber and prebiotics, which promote the growth of “good” bacteria in your gut.

And Guinness may have a slight edge compared with other brews, even over other stouts.

“We showed that Guinness contained the most folate of the imported beers we analyzed,” Bamforth said. Folate is a B vitamin that our bodies need to make DNA and other genetic material. It’s also necessary for cells to divide. According to his research, stouts on average contain 12.8 micrograms of folate, or 3.2% of the recommended daily allowance.

Because Guinness contains a lot of unmalted barley, which contains more fiber than malted grain, it is also one of the beers with the highest levels of fiber, according to Bamforth. (Note: Though the US Department of Agriculture lists beer as containing zero grams of fiber, Bamforth said his research shows otherwise.)

Bamforth has researched and coauthored studies published in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing and the Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists.

Here’s more potentially good news about Guinness: Despite its rich flavor and creamy consistency, it’s not the highest in calories compared with other beers. A 12-ounce serving of Guinness Draught has 125 calories. By comparison, the same size serving of Budweiser has 145 calories, Heineken has 142 calories, and Samuel Adams Cream Stout has 189 calories. In the United States, Guinness Extra Stout, by the way, has 149 calories.

This makes sense when you consider that alcohol is the main source of calories in beers. Guinness Draught has a lower alcohol content, at 4.2% alcohol by volume, compared with 5% for Budweiser and Heineken, and 4.9% for the Samuel Adams Cream Stout.

In general, moderate alcohol consumption – defined by the USDA’s dietary guidelines for Americans as no more than two drinks per day for men or one drink per day for women – may protect against heart disease. So you can check off another box.

Guinness is still alcohol, and consuming too much can impair judgment and contribute to weight gain. Heavy drinking (considered more than 14 drinks a week for men or more than seven drinks a week for women) and binge drinking (five or more drinks for men, and four or more for women, in about a two-hour period) are also associated with many health problems, including liver disease, pancreatitis and high blood pressure.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, “alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States: 17.6 million people, or one in every 12 adults, suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence along with several million more who engage in risky, binge drinking patterns that could lead to alcohol problems.”

And while moderate consumption of alcohol may have heart benefits for some, consumption of alcohol can also increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer for each drink consumed daily.

Many decades ago, in Ireland, it would not have been uncommon for a doctor to advise pregnant and nursing women to drink Guinness. But today, experts (particularly in the United States) caution of the dangers associated with consuming any alcohol while pregnant.

“Alcohol is a teratogen, which is something that causes birth defects. It can cause damage to the fetal brain and other organ systems,” said Dr. Erin Tracy, an OB/GYN at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive gynecology. “We don’t know of any safe dose of alcohol in pregnancy. Hence we recommend abstaining entirely during this brief period of time in a woman’s life.”

What about beer for breastfeeding? “In Britain, they have it in the culture that drinking Guinness is good for nursing mothers,” said Karl Siebert, professor emeritus of the food science department and previous director of the brewing program at Cornell University.

Beer in general has been regarded as a galactagogue, or stimulant of lactation, for much of history. In fact, according to irishtimes.com, breastfeeding women in Ireland were once given a bottle of Guinness a day in maternity hospitals.

According to Domhnall Marnell, the Guinness ambassador, Guinness Original (also known as Guinness Extra Stout, depending on where it was sold) debuted in 1821, and for a time, it contained live yeast, which had a high iron content, so it was given to anemic individuals or nursing mothers then, before the effects of alcohol were fully understood.

Some studies have showed evidence that ingredients in beer can increase prolactin, a hormone necessary for milk production; others have showed the opposite. Regardless of the conclusions, the alcohol in beer also appears to counter the benefits associated with increased prolactin secretion.

“The problem is that alcohol temporarily inhibits the milk ejection reflex and overall milk supply, especially when ingested in large amounts, and chronic alcohol use lowers milk supply permanently,” said Diana West, coauthor of “The Breastfeeding Mother’s Guide to Making More Milk.”

“Barley can be eaten directly, or even made from commercial barley drinks, which would be less problematic than drinking beer,” West said.

If you’re still not convinced that beer is detrimental to breastfeeding, consider this fact: A nursing mother drinking any type of alcohol puts her baby in potential danger. “The fetal brain is still developing after birth – and since alcohol passes into breast milk, the baby is still at risk,” Tracy said.

“This is something we would not advocate today,” Marnell agreed. “We would not recommend to anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding to be enjoying our products during this time in their life.”

Regarding the old wives’ tale about beer’s effects on breastfeeding, Marnell added, “It’s not something that Guinness has perpetuated … and if (people are still saying it), I’d like to say once and for all, it’s not something we support or recommend.”

Assuming you are healthy and have the green light to drink beer, you might wonder why Guinness feels like you’ve consumed a meal, despite its lower calorie and alcohol content.

It has to do with the sophistication that goes into producing and pouring Guinness. According to Bamforth, for more than half a century, Guinness has put nitrogen gas into its beer at the packaging stage, which gives smaller, more stable bubbles and delivers a more luscious mouthfeel. It also tempers the harsh burnt character coming from the roasted barley. Guinness cans, containing a widget to control the pour, also have some nitrogen.

Guinness is also dispensed through a special tap that uses a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. “In Ireland, Guinness had a long history of hiring the best and brightest university graduates regardless of what they were trained in,” Siebert said. “And they put them to work on things they needed. One was a special tap for dispensing Guinness, which has 11 different nozzles in it, that helps to form the fine-bubbled foam.”

The foam is remarkably long-lasting. “After you get a freshly poured Guinness, you can make a face in the foam, and by the time you finish drinking it, the face is still there,” Siebert said.

The famous advertising Guinness slogans – including “It’s a good day for a Guinness” – started through word of mouth, said Marnell. “In 1929, when we were about to do our first ad, we asked (ourselves), ‘What stance should we take?’ So we sent around a group of marketers (in Ireland and the UK) to ask Guinness drinkers why they chose Guinness, and nine out of 10 said their belief was that the beer was healthy for them. We already had this reputation in the bars before we uttered a word about the beer.

“That led to the Gilroy ads that were posted,” Marnell explained, referring to the artist John Gilroy, responsible for the Guinness ads from 1928 to the 1960s. “You’ll see the characters representing the Guinness brand – the toucan, the pelican – and slogans like ‘Guinness is good for you’ or ‘Guinness for Strength.’ But those were from the 1920s, ’30s and ‘40s.”

Today, he said, the company would not claim any health benefits for its beer. “If anyone is under the impression that there are health benefits to drinking Guinness, then unfortunately, I’m the bearer of bad news. Guinness is not going to build muscle or cure you of influenza.”

In fact, Guinness’ parent company, Diageo, spends a lot of effort supporting responsible drinking initiatives and educating consumers about alcohol’s effects. Its DrinkIQ page offers information such as calories in alcohol, how your body processes it and when alcohol can be dangerous, including during pregnancy.

“One of the main things we focus on … is that while we would love people to enjoy our beer, we want to make sure they do so as responsibly as possible,” Marnell said. “We would never recommend that anyone drink to excess, and (we want to make people) aware of how alcohol effects the body.”

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  • And again: Most health providers in the US would advise forgoing all alcohol if you are pregnant, nursing or have other health or medical issues where alcohol consumption is not advised.

    So responsibly celebrate St. Patrick this year a little wiser about the health benefits and risks with one of its signature potables.

    This story originally published in 2017.



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