15 Jan

Can breastmilk be made in a lab?

This is not intended as a ‘breast is best’ post, simply a list of the reasons why it would be impossible to make an exact replica of breastmilk in the lab. There are already many, many resources on this subject, and this is only intended as a simplified list.

  1. Breastmilk changes all the time according to the needs of the child. For example, in hot weather, it has a higher water content. As the child gets older and starts to toddle, the antibody count increases to counter the increased exposure to pathogens. If a baby is exposed to pathogens, an interaction between his saliva in the mother’s milk ducts causes appropriate antibodies to be made in the milk. Formula does not contain antibodies.
  2. Breastmilk also changes during each feed, becoming increasingly high in fat as the baby drinks. This is what causes baby’s internal appetite control to kick in. The fat content of formula does not change.
  3. Breastmilk contains antimicrobial and immune factors. Few of these can be made in a lab.
  4. Breastmilk contains the digestive enzyme lipase, which helps the immature gut to digest the milk. This is why it takes longer to digest formula milk, which is one of the reasons bottlefed babies go longer between feeds.
  5. The flavour of breastmilk changes according to the mother’s diet. Babies experience different tastes before starting solid food.
  6. Breastmilk contains human growth hormones. Formula milk, which is made from cow’s milk, contains bovine growth hormones.
  7. There are other ‘human’ factors which are impossible to make in a lab, including human iron. Breastmilk also contains lactoferrin, which helps the baby to digest the iron in breastmilk. As formula does not contain lactoferrin, the iron content has to be much higher in order for the baby to absorb sufficient quantities. High levels of iron can cause the gut to bleed, resulting in anaemia. Other micronutrients and vitamins are added to formula in high quantities, for the same reason.
  8. Some babies are allergic to cow’s milk protein. No babies are allergic to human milk protein.
  9. Breastmilk contains lactose, cholesterol and fatty acids that aid human brain development. Formula milk does not.
  10. Breastmilk is sterile. Formula powder is not. Ready-made formula is sterile but requires a lot more handling than breastmilk, which usually goes directly from breast to baby.
  11. No country has a government standard for formula. There is a minimum standard, but other than that, there are no rules for what can or can’t be added. Most ‘new’ ingredients are added for marketing, rather than health, reasons.
  12. Babies get more than just milk and its constituents, when they breastfeed. The benefits of lots of skin to skin are well-established.

UK formula companies spend £20 per baby on promoting formula. The government spends 14p per baby on promoting breastfeeding, and we know that ‘promoting’ breastfeeding is unhelpful. Would that £20.14 per baby was spent on supporting breastfeeding mothers, and then the question of whether or not formula could replicate breastmilk would be completely irrelevant.

The Ecologist: Breastmilk vs ‘formula’ food
Dr Sears on comparison of breastmilk and artificial milk
Kellymom on immune factors