As someone who’s breastfed a human being (to be clear, it was my son), I can see why people refer to breast milk as “liquid gold.” Breastfeeding has lifelong benefits for both the mother and infant. For example, there’s less incidence of breast cancer in mothers who breastfeed for at least six months.
Breast milk has been shown to have many benefits to the growing infant, including:
- boosting immunity
- providing optimal nutrition
- affecting cognitive development
But these benefits are for infants. Adults may have more questions, like what does breast milk actually taste like? Is it even safe to drink? Well, here are answers to some Frequently Asked Breast Milk Questions (FABMQ):
Breast milk tastes like milk, but probably a different kind than the store-bought one you’re used to. The most popular description is “heavily sweetened almond milk.” The flavor is affected by what each mom eats and the time of day. Here’s what some moms, who’ve tasted it, also say it tastes like:
- sugar water
- melted ice cream
Babies can’t talk (unless you’re watching “Look Who’s Talking,” which is oddly hilarious to an insomniac pregnant woman at 3 a.m., by the way), but kids who remember what breast milk tasted like or were breastfed until they were verbal say it tastes like “really, really sweet milk that was sweetened.”
Need more descriptors (and facial reactions)? Watch the Buzzfeed video where adults try breast milk below:
Most moms say breast milk smells like it tastes — like cows’ milk, but milder and sweeter. Some say their milk sometimes has a “soapy” smell. (Fun fact: That’s due to a high level of lipase, an enzyme that helps break down fats.)
Breast milk that’s been frozen and defrosted may have a slightly sour smell, which is normal. Truly sour breast milk — resulting from milk that was pumped and then not stored properly — will have an “off” smell, just like when cows’ milk turns sour.
Breast milk is usually a little thinner and lighter than cows’ milk. One mom says, “It surprised me how watery it was!” Another describes it as “thin (like watered-down cows’ milk)”. So it’s probably not that great for milkshakes.
It might sound like rainbows and magic but really, human milk contains the water, fat, proteins, and nutrients that babies need to grow. Julie Bouchet-Horwitz, FNP-BC, IBCLC is the Executive Director of the New York Milk Bank. She explains that breast milk “has growth hormones for brain development, and also anti-infective properties to protect the vulnerable infant from diseases that the child comes across.”
A mom’s milk also contains bioactive molecules that:
- protect against infection and inflammation
- help the immune system mature
- promote organ development
- encourage healthy microbial colonization
“We’re the only species that continues to drink milk and milk products after we’ve been weaned,” Bouchet-Horwitz reminds us. “Sure, human milk is for humans, but it’s for human babies.”
You can, but breast milk is a bodily fluid, so you don’t want to be drinking breast milk from someone you don’t know. Breast milk has been ingested by plenty of adults (you mean that wasn’t cows’ milk I put in my coffee?) without a problem. Some bodybuilders have turned to breast milk as a sort of “superfood,” but there’s no evidence that it improves performance at the gym. There are some cases, as reported by The Seattle Times, of people with cancer, digestive disorders, and immune disorders using milk from a breast milk bank in order to help fight their diseases. But again, research is needed.
Bouchet-Horwitz notes, “Some adults use it for cancer therapy. It has a tumor necrosing factor that causes apoptosis — that means a cell implodes.” But the research behind anticancer benefits are often on a cellular level. There’s very little in the way of human research or clinical trials focused on anticancer activity to show that these properties can actively fight cancer in humans. Bouchet-Horwitz adds that researchers are trying to synthesize the component in the milk known as HAMLET (human alpha-lactalbumin made lethal to tumor cells) that causes tumor cells to die.
Human breast milk from a milk bank is screened and pasteurized, so it doesn’t contain anything harmful. However, certain diseases (including HIV and hepatitis) can be transmitted through breast milk. Don’t ask a friend who’s breastfeeding for a sip (not smart for so many reasons) or try to buy milk off the internet. It’s never a good idea to buy any bodily fluid off the internet.
Breast milk has been used topically for burns, eyes infections such as pink eye, diaper rash, and wounds to reduce infection and aid in healing.
A breast milk latte isn’t going to be readily available at your local Starbucks anytime soon (although who knows what crazy promotional stunts they’ll come up with next). But people have made and sold foods made from breast milk, including cheese and ice cream. But never ask a woman who’s lactating for breast milk, even if you know her.
Seriously, just leave the breast milk to the babies. Healthy adults don’t need human breast milk. If you do have a baby in need of human breast milk, check out the Human Milk Banking Association of North America for a safe source of donated milk. The bank requires a prescription from your doctor before they’ll give you donor milk. After all, people say breast is best — but in this case, please make sure the milk has been through the proper tests!
Janine Annett is a New York-based writer who focuses on writing picture books, humor pieces, and personal essays. She writes about topics ranging from parenting to politics, from the serious to the silly.