03 Oct

Closest to breastmilk

While it’s no longer legal in this country for the milk manufacturers to claim that their infant formula is “closest to” or “inspired by” or (yes, this has happened) “better than” breastmilk, the idea that these companies are beavering away trying so hard to come up with the perfect infant food has a fairly strong hold. As long as they are seen to be competing to be the best infant formula, they can hope that we will overlook the fact that they are all nutritionally inadequate in different ways. This makes their claim to be the best yet more irresponsible, as bottlefeeding mothers tend to stick to one brand.

It is simply impossible to support a claim to be “close to breastmilk,” because the components of breastmilk change constantly. They change from day to day, from feed to feed, according to the age of the child, the needs of the child, and even the weather. Seriously. On a hot day, babies drink thinner, more thirst-quenching milk. If formula manufacturers cannot identify all the ingredients, and cannot establish the function of many of those ingredients that they have identified, and cannot synthesise many of those whose function they do understand, and cannot balance the synthetic ingredients to achieve the same nutritional end result, then how can they possibly be selling something that is supposed, in some way, to be equivalent to human milk?

On top of that, there is the slightest teeny tiny suspicion that sometimes, some of the changes made to the formula might not be entirely attributable to amazing new discoveries about the contents of human milk, but in fact can be attributed to amazing new discoveries about what parents will buy if it is suggested to them that a particular product contains “essential” ingredients for brain growth, prebiotics, or the wonderful immunofortis. And no-one ever calls them to account for the fact that these essential ingredients were missing in the previous formula. Infant formulae are revised over 100 times a year, and each one is more perfect than the last, just as each Mars Bar is the biggest ever.

The bioavailability of nutrients in human breastmilk is high for its human consumers, because of the interaction between the ingredients of the milk, and the body’s mechanism for processing them. If one element is needed to process another, but is not available, then something else will be used, and the balance is upset. For example, too much iron causes a zinc deficiency; yet artificial milk contains twenty times the concentration of iron found in human milk, because cow’s milk lacks human lactoferrin, and therefore the iron in cow’s milk cannot be as easily absorbed by the human infant. Human iron is all absorbed, but the iron added to artificial milk is not, resulting in more waste for the newborn’s body to process, and encouraging the growth of harmful bacteria such as salmonella and candida in the gut. The guts of artificially fed children are already at more risk from such pathogenic bacteria, because they have a higher pH, because the lactose in human milk encourages the growth of friendly bacteria which keeps the pH naturally low. You see? As soon as one domino clicks down, the others start to tumble.

Formula feeding is the longest lasting uncontrolled experiment lacking informed consent in the history of medicine. – Frank Oski, M.D., retired editor, Journal of Pediatrics

Today’s post once again owes a lot to Maureen Minchin – Breastfeeding Matters: What we need to know about infant feeding and the ever-factual Royal College of Midwives’ Successful Breastfeeding. Other sources were Kellymom, and Gabrielle Palmer – The Politics of Breastfeeding.

Originally posted elsewhere on 14th May 2008