Science - January 13, 2005

Sugar chains improve baby milk

Breastfed babies are less often ill than bottle-fed babies. A Wageningen student did PhD research for the infant formula manufacturer Numico on a mixture of indigestible sugars that should make the differences between bottle feed and breast milk smaller.

The substance that Astrid Bakker-Zierikzee examined is a mixture of indigestible sugars, or oligosaccharides. These sugars occur naturally in breast milk and scientists believe that these are partly responsible for the protective effect of mothers’ milk. ‘Human breast milk contains about a hundred different kinds of oligosaccharides,’ explains Bakker-Zierikzee. ‘These are not present in standard bottle-feed. We think that these sugar chains are important because the human intestine cannot digest them, but that they form a food medium for the beneficial bacteria in the human gut. The mixture that I studied resembles the sugar chains that occur naturally in human milk.’

The researcher gave mothers with newborn babies ordinary infant formula or milk with added oligosaccharides. She then examined the faeces of the babies for the first sixteen weeks of their lives. As a control she examined the faeces of breast-fed babies. In terms of beneficial bacteria, the sugar chains work well, according to her results. ‘The gut flora of breast-fed babies is dominated by bifid bacteria and lactobacilli. The increase of bacteria in babies that only receive bottle feed is slower. The amount and activity of beneficial bacteria in the babies that received extra indigestible sugar chains approached the levels found in breast-fed babies.’

The formula mixture that Bakker-Zierikzee examined is already on the market. It is in Numico’s Omneo and was recently also added to Nutrilon. / WK

Astrid Bakker-Zierikzee will receive her PhD on 19 January. Her promoters are Professor Frans Kok, chair of Nutrition and Health, and Professor Jacques Bindels, chair of Nutrition during Growth and Development.

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