Study sheds new light on importance of human breast milk ingredient

Phyllis Picklesimer
EurekAlert

URBANA – A new University of Illinois study shows that human milk oligosaccharides, or HMO, produce short-chain fatty acids that feed a beneficial microbial population in the infant gut. Not only that, the bacterial composition adjusts as the baby grows older and its needs change.

Even though HMO are a major component of human milk, present in higher concentration than protein, many of their actions in the infant are not well understood. Furthermore, they’re virtually absent from infant formula. The scientists wanted to find out what formula-fed babies were missing.

“We refer to HMO as the fiber of human milk because we don’t have the enzymes to break down these compounds. They pass into the large intestine where the bacteria digest them.

“We’re curious about the role they play in the development of the breast-fed infant’s gut bacteria because the bacteria found in the guts of formula-fed infants is different,” said Sharon Donovan, the U of I’s Melissa M. Noel Endowed Professor in Nutrition and Health.

With this study, Donovan is gaining insight into the mystery. For the first time, scientists have shown that a complex mixture of HMO and a single HMO component produce patterns of short-chain fatty acids that change as the infant gets older.

A healthy microbiome has both short- and long-term effects on an infant’s health. In the short term, beneficial bacteria protect the infant from infection by harmful bacteria. In the long term, beneficial bacteria strengthen the immune system so that it can fend off chronic health problems like food allergies and asthma, she said.

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