Babies breast milk – discoveringhealthy chemistry

Babies and breast milk – discovering the healthy chemistry

11:04 AM, 11th May 2012
Babies and breast milk – discovering the healthy chemistry
Scientists explain how complex fluid nourishes infants and protects them from disease.

CALIFORNIA, US: Much of human breast milk is indigestible to babies and goes instead to feed bacteria in their tiny guts. A diet of breast milk for babies is correlated with benefits including less diarrhea as well as lower incidence of diabetes or asthma when compared to formula-fed babies. But precisely how breast milk confers those advantages is unclear. Scientists know the basic ingredients of breast milk but don’t fully understand how exactly they work to provide optimum nutrition for infants and protect against disease.

According to Carlito B Lebrilla, Professor at UC Davis (specializing in studying sugars, or oligosaccharides) complex mixtures of these signatures are found in milk, and are also produced as a distinctive ‘signature’ that could lead to early detection of ovarian cancer. A better understanding of the components of human breast milk (lipids and oligosaccharides) and their role in ensuring infant health could lead to improved foods and better ways to treat gastrointestinal diseases, not just for infants but perhaps also for adults.

Human breast milk is made up of several solid components. The most abundant of those is lactose, a disaccharide that provides energy for the infant. After lactose comes lipids, which are thought to primarily deliver nutrient fat. Milk fat typically exists in globules of varying sizes that have a triacylglycerol core surrounded by a phospholipid membrane. Beyond the basic structure, however, scientists don’t know much.

Smaller globules on the order of 1 µm or less, however, appear to contain few or no triglycerides. J Bruce German, Professor, University of California, Davis and colleagues suggest the term ‘lactosomes’ for these particles, to distinguish them from the traditional characterization of milk fat globules. They propose that the lactosomes are formed differently from globules and may have a function separate from simply delivering nutrient fat.

Globules and lactosomes are formed at high metabolic cost to mammary cells, which sacrifice parts of their cell membrane to secrete the particles. Because mothers would not have evolved to maintain pathways that were not beneficial to infants, milk fat globules and lactosomes likely play significant roles in nutrient absorption and metabolism. Also, unlike typical plant oil and other animal fat storage systems, which are surrounded by a single layer of phospholipids, milk fat globules have that layer plus an additional bilayer of phospholipids and glycolipids.

“When you think about it, an infant is making lots of membrane material and is turning over a lot of intestinal cells. That is probably also true for adults. People are realizing it’s probably more valuable to eat phospholipids than we’d previously thought,” said German.

After lactose and lipids, free oligosaccharides are the third most plentiful solid component of human milk. Approximately 10 per cent of the 500 calories per day that a typical mother uses to make milk are devoted to synthesizing oligosaccharides. Yet infants cannot digest the compounds. To devote so much energy to something that is not nutritious clearly indicates that the sugars must play an essential role in infant health, said Lebrilla.

© UC Davis News

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