Breast milk components and their health functions: the science so far

Advanced analytical technologies such as next-generation sequencing have enabled unprecedented exploration of human breast milk and expanded research on its various health benefits. Nevertheless, breast milk is a complex system of bioactive components, many of which have not yet been identified, and others which have only been investigated at the preliminary level.

The current review paper, published in the journal Nutrients​, examined some of the components and the literature on their health science. The authors categorised these components in four groups: macronutrients, immunologic components, micro-organisms (or the ‘microbiome’) and exosomes and microRNA.

Macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fat

Carbohydrates account for 7% (60-70g/L) of milk and 40% of the total calorie reserve. Lactose is the main carbohydrate in breast milk. It is the major contributor to the osmolality of breast milk and aids the absorption of oligosaccharides, minerals and calcium.

Protein, which accounts for 1% (8-10g/L), is composed of whey, caseins and various peptides, providing crucial amino acids for infant growth and development as well as bioactive proteins and peptides.

Breast milk contains 3.5-4.5% fat, of which 95-98% is in the form of triglycerides. Accounting for 50% of an infant’s nutritional supply, fat is the most important macromolecule for infant growth and development of the nervous system.

Immunologic components

Immunologic proteins include α-lactalbumin, lactoferrin, lysozyme, and secretory immunoglobulin A (sIgA), which are all whey proteins, highlighting the essential role of whey protein in immune protection at birth.

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