Guest article by Sam Hadadi
With breast milk ice cream now on menus across the capital and other controversial stories often popping up in the press, barely a day goes by when breast milk doesn’t make the news.
Yet whether you’re sat in the “breast is best” camp or pro-formula, we're still told that a mother’s milk will often offer babies and infants the best start to life.
From healthy fats and nutrients to life-protecting antibodies, a mother’s milk gives her newborn everything it could possibly need as it enjoys its first experience of the world.
Yet what you may be surprised to learn is that the nutrients in breast milk differs from country to country.
Earlier this month, a Purdue University analysis of breast milk showed that levels of certain health-boosting compounds – otherwise known as carotenoids – change across the globe. Perhaps not quite so surprisingly is that the breast milk contents reflected each country’s dietary habits, with US milk falling behind both China and Mexico.
So, what are carotenoids, and why are they important? Well, quite simply, they’re plant pigments that help with human development. They’re also vital sources of vitamin A, which gives us healthy eyes and a strong immune system.
The carotenoid content of breast milk depends on how much fresh fruit and vegetables a woman eats. Think plenty of squash, citrus fruits, sweet potatoes and dark, leafy greens. Basically, your 5-a-day.
The key here is that if you want to give your baby the healthiest breast milk possible, then you need to eat up your fruit and veg!
Mario Ferruzzi, professor of food science and nutrition at Purdue University, said: “Evidence is increasing that carotenoids are important for both mothers and infants.
“Nursing women should eat fruits and vegetables as recommended in dietary guidelines. As long as your baby is happy with it, don't exclude bright orange or yellow produce and leafy vegetables from your diet.”
The university’s study found that the amount of carotenoids in American women's breast milk two weeks after giving birth were a massive 40 per cent lower than levels in Chinese women's milk. Meanwhile, it was around 25 per cent lower than levels in Mexican women's milk.
Researchers believe that the huge difference in these levels could be because American women, as a whole, eat lower amount of fruits and vegetables than mothers in China or Mexico.
Feruzzi warned: “Fruit and vegetable consumption appears to be pretty low across the nation. In general, we are just not consuming the recommended amounts.”
During the study, the researchers looked at the carotenoid and fatty acid make-up of breast milk donated by three groups of women - one group in Shanghai, one in Mexico City and one in Cincinnati. The milk was analysed at two, four, 13 and 26 weeks after giving birth.
As we mentioned the breast milk from China had the highest dose of nutrients. It had more lutein - a carotenoid that promotes eye health - at each lactation stage, as well as the highest amount of fatty acids at each stage except 13 weeks. It’s thought that these levels could affect a child’s visual development and brain health.
Meanwhile, levels of beta-carotene - a carotenoid that converts into vitamin A – varied between each country and lactation stage. However, they were about 25 per cent higher in milk from China and Mexico than the U.S. at two weeks.
On the flip side, breast milk from the U.S. consistently contained the highest levels of lycopene, a carotenoid most often found in tomatoes. Lycopene can play a role in immunity and protect against inflammatory diseases.
Many countries across the globe recommend breast milk as the preferred food source for babies up to six months old. Why? Well, it’s a complete source of nutrients – think fats, carbs, proteins - antibodies, vitamins, minerals, and these carotenoids too. Impressive stuff, right?
The NHS is one of the many bodies to back breast feeding, saying that it can even prevent illness and disease in nursing mothers1. What’s more, it has endless benefits for baby, too – it can ward off infections2, prevent childhood obesity1, and can even predict IQ3 and our earning potential as we get older!
The researchers on this study say that understanding breast milk's composition is crucial in forming dietary recommendations for nursing mothers. It can even be used to improve formula milk.
Feruzzi added: “Studying the composition of human milk is one of the best guides we have for determining optimal nutrition intake for infants.
“This can also help us design formula that functions like human milk and doesn't just 'look' like human milk in terms of content.”
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.