Nutrition experts agree that breast milk is the best food for babies.
But sometimes nursing is not possible or needs to be supplemented, so parents turn to formula.
The Holy Grail for formula manufacturers is to create a product as much like breast milk as possible.
To that end, researchers at Abbott, a worldwide healthcare and research laboratory, are publishing a report today in the Journal of Nutrition in which they describe an additional form of human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) being added to infant formula for the first time.
Researchers say the process makes the final product more like mother’s milk than ever before.
The news excites Rachael Buck, Ph.D., an immunologist and associate research fellow at Abbott, who developed the formula.
“Breast milk provides the best nutrition for babies,” she told Healthline. “But we are devoted to bringing formula closer to breast milk.”
What do HMOs do?
Buck works on the front lines of infant nutrition.
Her area of expertise is pediatric nutrition, immune health, HMOs, and nucleotides. She’s also the author of 51 journal articles and has filed 55 patents.
In the field of immune health, Buck studies the components of breast milk to help Abbott nutritionists develop infant formulas.
To see how this works, it helps to understand the function of the HMOs that are naturally found in mother’s milk and which bolster a baby’s developing immune system.
Not only do HMOs help healthy bacteria thrive in the gut (where about 70 percent of the immune system exists), but research shows they are also found in the bloodstream.
This brings us to a little biochemical alphabet soup known as 2′-fucosyllactose (2FL).
2FL is the most prevalent HMO, and makes up about 30 percent of all of HMOs.
“What’s so interesting is that this is so abundant, a human prebiotic,” Buck said.
Integrating into formula
In the formula Similac, in which it was tested, 2FL was found to be absorbed into the circulation of babies.
“It can deliver benefits beyond the gastrointestinal system,” said Buck, herself the mother of three sons.
As with other oligosaccharides, 2FL is widely known for its ability to protect against infectious diseases.
Specifically, it is crucial to the prevention of epithelial level adhesions of toxins and pathogens. It does this by stimulating the growth of certain Bifidobacteria and receptor analogous.
“This is the biggest development in this area in 10 years,” Buck said.
Her team did a clinical study of 200 babies.
Some received only breast milk. Some got additional formula, and some got the formula with 2FL added.
The study showed that there were immune markers between the babies fed 2FL and those who were breast-fed.
“So those babies were more like breast-fed babies” than the ones getting regular formula, Buck said.
“We’re not saying babies won’t get sick,” she added, “but it does strengthen babies’ immune systems.”
“There’s no downside here,” Buck said. “We’re feeding babies a safe ingredient, a formula shown to be closer to breast milk. We’re very proud of this.”
The new formula can be found in some forms of Similac.
Is it a big change?
But not everybody thinks this study represents a radical change in the field.
Dr. Steve Abrams, a neonatologist at the Baylor College of Medicine, and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Nutrition Committee, says formula-fed infants, on average, will drink 25 to 30 ounces a day for most of their first year.
At first, infants might take only half an ounce to an ounce per feeding. The amount babies drink usually decreases once they start eating solid foods.
As far as the Abbott study is concerned, Abrams isn’t convinced.
“We just don’t know what will change. This is one small study and it doesn’t tell us much,” he told Healthline.
There are different ways to study infant formula, including biochemical studies, he said.
“Parents will question: ‘Will this make a difference in my child’s health. Will they get sick less often?’ One small study does not redefine what’s ideal for infants. It has to be replicated,” Abrams said
The best advice remains to try breast-feeding if you can.
“Unquestionably, breast milk is far superior to any formula designed for babies, and even more critical for the health of the premature baby,” says Dr. Jane Morton, F.A.A.P., in a post on the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “The challenge lies in making breast-feeding, or providing a mother's own milk for her baby, a comfortable, enjoyable, and manageable part of the new mother's life.”
A number of health organizations — including the AAP, the American Medical Association (AMA), and the World Health Organization (WHO) — recommend breast-feeding as the best choice for babies.
Breast-feeding helps defend against infections, prevent allergies, and protect against a number of chronic conditions.