IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Modified formula milk not linked to better academic performance

11 November 2021

Babies who were given nutritionally modified formula milk had the same maths and English exam results as children who were given standard formula milk by age 16, finds a new study led by UCL researchers that links seven randomised controlled trials to school performance results.

Baby held in mother’s arms, drinking milk from a bottle

Scientists from the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (GOS ICH) and the UCL Institute of Education’s Social Research Institute, who published their findings in the BMJ today, used a novel approach to link school performance and health data, to see whether some types of nutritionally modified formula milk made any difference to later cognitive ability.

The research team analysed data from 1,763 children who were participating in trials between 1993 and 2001 and were randomly given enriched or standard formula milk. Randomisation ensured that the groups were equal in all ways apart from the type of formula milk they received. 

The researchers then gathered anonymised data for 91% (1,607) of the children from their school records at age 11 and 16 to see if the type of milk they had been given as babies had a noticeable effect on their school performance. 
Two of the trials tested formula milks which had been enriched with a long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (LCPUFA), one of the many breast milk constituents with a role in brain development. Another trial tested follow-on formula with high-iron content and two tested nutrient enriched formula milks. A further two tested formulations with added sn-2 palmitate or nucleotides, but these were not thought to relate to cognition.
Data from the trials was linked to school records and showed that there was no benefit on scores for national exams in maths at age 16 (GCSEs).  At age 11, children who had been given the LCPUFA supplemented formula scored lower in both English and maths, but this could not be confirmed at age 16 years. None of the other modified formulas led to improved performance in English at age 16 and in maths and English at age 11 years (Key Stage 2) or affected eligibility for special educational needs support and achieving five or more GCSE grades of C or higher.

Co-author, Professor Ruth Gilbert (UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health) said: “Our findings suggest there are no long-term benefits of these modified formula milks on brain development. Regulators should consider the relevance of these findings for recommendations on the composition of infant formulas.”

The researchers note that although the trials were carried out several decades ago, they are relevant to formula milks used today. However, new types of formula are being developed. This study shows how linkage to education data could make long-term follow up of cognition much easier for future and past formula trials.

Lead author Dr Maximiliane Verfürden, who carried out the research at the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, said: “No previous research has shown conclusive benefits for cognitive ability of these nutritionally modified formulas, but the evidence was uncertain due to short follow-up periods and high drop-out rates over time. 

“By linking data from historic randomised trials to data routinely collected from school tests, the current study provides the best available evidence on whether these formula modifications affect children’s cognitive ability.

“This study sets a precedent for other trials and cohorts to use linkage of historic trials to administrative data to address high participant drop-out over time and answer important questions about long term outcomes in children and young people.”

Professor John Jerrim (UCL Social Research Institute) added: “This work shows the huge value in using administrative data to address research questions across health and education. The approach we have used here is just the tip of the iceberg. A similar approach could be used to address a whole host of important education issues.”

The study was supported with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, UCL Bloomsbury and East London Doctoral Training Partnership, Great Ormond Street Hospital Charity Research Starter Grant, NIHR Children and Families Policy Research Unit and Health Data Research UK.

Media contact

Rowan Walker, UCL Media Relations
T: +44 (0)7986 463767
E: rowan.walker@ucl.ac.uk



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