UC Davis decoding mother's milk for clues to lasting health

Oct 15, 2013

Is there such thing as a nutritionally perfect food? Is there something a human can consume that provides everything a body needs to stay healthy?

Yes, scientists say. Breast milk.

“Mother’s milk is the Rosetta stone for all food,” said Bruce German, professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at UC Davis and director of the UC Davis Foods for Health Institute. “It’s a complete food, a complete diet, shaped over 200 million years of evolution to keep healthy babies healthy.”

German and his team are now decoding breast milk to better understand its components and why they work so well. They are discovering a wealth of information about how best to feed and protect the human body, lessons that will enhance health not just for infants but for us all.

What are they learning?

For one thing, a large part of breast milk goes into babies' mouths and out into their diapers with no digestion along the way. That's astonishing. Of the 500 calories a lactating woman burns each day to make milk, 10 percent is spent synthesizing something the baby treats as waste. If it didn’t have value to the developing baby, wouldn’t natural selection have discarded it long ago?

Turns out, it has great value. The indigestible matter is a slew of sugar polymers called oligosaccharides that feed specific bacteria in a baby’s gut. The oligosaccharides help good bugs proliferate and dominate, keeping babies healthy by crowding out the less savory bugs before they can become established and, perhaps more important, nurturing the integrity of the lining of an infant’s intestines, which play a vital role in protecting them from infection and inflammation.

“What a genius strategy,” German said. “Mothers are recruiting another life form to babysit their babies.”

So maybe when we nourish our bodies, we should think about feeding our good bugs, too.

How do we do that? Good question. Scientists can’t yet say for sure what a healthy bacterial community in our guts should look like, let alone how best to promote it. But one thing is certain, German says. 

“Our good bacteria play a much more important role in our health than we realized,” German said.

So oligosaccharides might support microbial balance in our digestive tracts. Nursing babies can get them from their mothers. What about the rest of us?

Another good question, and UC Davis researchers are on it, identifying, extracting and delivering health-promoting oligosaccharides from various sources, including whey, the waste product from cheese making.

You can read all about it (and more) in this story on the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences website: http://caes.ucdavis.edu/news/articles/2013/09/title-uc-davis-decoding-mother2019s-milk-for-clues-to-lasting-health




By Diane Nelson
Author - Writer