A rich heritage of Life-Transforming Nutrition

In 1896 an entrepreneurial approach to the latest nutritional science established Nutricia and changed the lives of millions of people around the world


Poor infant nutrition – the 19th century common cause of infant mortality across Europe

At the end of the nineteenth century one in five infants died before the age of one, with poor nutrition recognized as one of the main causes1-2. Many mothers struggled to breastfeed and were forced to use animal milks, particularly cow’s milk, to feed their babies. It was not well-known at the time that the composition of cow’s milk was not appropriate for feeding infants and could also be a carrier of disease. These two factors contributed to high infant mortality across Europe.

The important role of wet nurses

The industrial revolution had driven a decline in breastfeeding as more mothers sought paid work to support the family. For those with money, wet nurses, women paid to breastfeed other women’s babies, provided an alternative source of quality nutrition for infants. In Hamburg alone as many as 5,000 women were employed as wet nurses. However,  supply was limited to those who could afford it and, if you were poor, your choices were limited.

For everyone else, breast milk substitutes were needed, so researchers began to seek ways of producing nutritional supplements for these infants and children, focussing their efforts on formulations based on cow's milk. In 1853 no less than 68 different formulas existed - mainly animal milks fortified with other ingredients.

These solutions were far from ideal, placing too much stress on an infant's digestive system. Mortality rates among children fed with these breastmilk substitutes were seven-fold higher, compared to children that were breastfed. These deaths were believed to be caused by the formulas themselves, which unlike breastmilk, were poorly digested by babies leading to gastrointestinal infections, severe dehydration, and kidney problems.

An important discovery and a breakthrough in nutritional innovation

Building on existing research, a German professor, Alexander Backhaus, started to look for ways to provide better nutritional options to mothers who could not or chose not to breastfeed by producing a more easily digestible cow’s milk ‘formula’.

In 1885, his laboratory-based study of breastmilk pioneered the next - and arguably the most important innovation in infant formula at that time. Backhaus pioneered a technique that removed the more slowly digested casein protein from cows’ milk leaving behind only the faster dissolving and more easily digestible whey proteins. This more easily digestible formula improved tolerability and more closely resembled breast milk ensuring mothers unable to breastfeed had an alternative they could trust.

Nutricia is born

An entrepreneur as well as a medic, Professor Backhaus patented his innovation and insisted on constant quality control and strict adherence to his patent. Ahead of his time he established a laboratory – the ‘Nutricia Zentrale’ – to make sure his formula always provided nutrition to strict standards wherever it was made. This discipline and passion ensured mothers unable to breastfeed could always access a high quality, safe and nutritionally consistent alternative. This innovative process became known as the Nutricia method and had an immediate impact saving the lives of thousands of babies all around the world.

At a medical conference in Berlin in 1896, Professor Backhaus presented his invention to an international audience of doctors. Among the audience was Dr. Johannes van der Hagen, a medical doctor and Dutch Public Health Inspector. Johannes went straight to his brother Martinus van der Hagen, a born salesman and owner of a margarine and dairy products factory in The Netherlands. They both saw a great future for this innovation and set up a meeting with Professor Backhaus who, recognized the potential to impact the lives of many more infants for the better, granted them the exclusive rights to manufacture his infant milk formula. 

They named their company ‘Nutricia’ after Professor Backhaus’ laboratory, the ‘Nutricia Zentrale’, which derived its name from the Latin word ‘nutrire’ (‘to feed’). The formula quickly gained popularity with mothers, becoming affectionately known as “The Wet Nurse of The Netherlands” – an important endorsement as wet nurses were the gold standard at that time. 

Beyond infant nutrition and the start of medical nutrition

Both entrepreneurial and strongly rooted in science, Nutricia quickly expanded its focus beyond infant nutrition. Medical advances had discovered important links between nutrition and certain illnesses at key moments in life and as such, Nutricia was among the first to pioneer the concept of ‘medical nutrition’.  This led to the development of  special milks, including low-sugar solutions for diabetic patients and milks  fortified with iodine for goitre sufferers – a swelling of the thyroid gland that was particularly prevalent at this time.

Nutricia today – Life-Transforming Nutrition at every stage of life

From its earliest days Nutricia has distinguished itself through a commitment to leading-edge nutritional research that has led to the discovery, development, and delivery of breakthrough nutritional solutions for parents, patients and carers all around the world.

Now established as a key healthcare brand of Danone, Nutricia has intensified its focus and expertise on developing research-based, life-transforming, nutritional solutions to help people around the world live longer, more joyful, and healthier lives.

  1. UTP Journals Vincent J. Knapp. See obituary on p. 407. CBMH/BCHM / Volume 15: 1998 / p. 317-36 https://www.utpjournals.press/doi/pdf/10.3138/cbmh.15.2.317
  2. Long-Term Factors in American Economic Growth. Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, eds. University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0-226-20928-8 1986 https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/6806299.pdf

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