There are few foods more critically necessary, more difficult to synthesize, and more highly regulated, than infant formulas. The obstacles and opportunities in infant nutrition are driving innovation around the world. Let’s take a look.
Breastmilk is the Perfect Food
Experts and public health agencies around the world agree that there is no better food for infants than their mother’s breastmilk. Breast milk contains the perfect balance of macronutrients babies need to thrive, along with critical antibodies, hormones, vitamins, minerals, and other compounds that promote life long health.
However, the truth is that not all women can breastfeed their babies, or cannot exclusively breastfeed. An estimated 2-5% of women cannot produce enough milk to feed a growing child, while 12-15% cannot produce milk continuously for the first 12 months of life, and women with certain medical conditions should not breastfeed. In addition, even breastfeeding mothers often cannot breastfeed exclusively, or breastfeed for as long as they intended. The demands of the workplace and a busy schedule, lack of social and cultural support, and other obstacles often require breastfeeding mothers to use infant formulas at least a portion of the time.
These factors give rise to the unusual situation where, although breastmilk is natural, free, and the best possible way to feed a baby, there is a huge and growing global demand for equivalent substitutes. That’s where the challenges begin.
Why is Breastmilk Nutrition Difficult to Replicate?
Breast milk contains hundreds of bioactive chemical compounds, many of them unique to breast milk, in a form that is optimized for infant digestion. Some of the reasons that breastmilk is so difficult to synthesize are:
- Breastmilk is versatile and dynamic. During the lactation cycle of a child, the nutritional components of breastmilk change. Early colostrum is dramatically different than milk produced as a child ages. Breastmilk is also different between different women, at different times of day, and even over the course of a single feeding. Breast milk in mothers who deliver pre-term is different than mothers who deliver full-term, and this has important health outcomes for babies.
- Breastmilk contains both nutrients and bioactive agents. While we can analyze breast milk for macronutrients and replicate that profile, it is difficult to analyze, let alone replicate, all the anti-infectious and anti-inflammatory agents, prebiotics, growth factors, and other compounds in natural breastmilk. Breast milk contains hundreds, if not thousands, of bioactive cells and molecules, making it difficult to replicate.
- Our knowledge of breastmilk is incomplete. Although we have detailed scientific knowledge of the action of macrophages, immunoglobulins, cytokines, and many of the growth hormones contained in breast milk, we still have a long way to go. Researchers are still studying the specific composition and benefits of oligosaccharides, lactoferrins, and even mRNA in breastmilk. Because we have a limited understanding of, for example, healthy digestive bacteria in humans, it is difficult to know which of these compounds must be included in breast milk replacement products, and in what quantities.
For all those reasons, we have yet to create a perfect breast milk replacement in a laboratory, let alone create infant nutrition products that replicate the dynamic properties of breast milk. This is why most infant formulas are still recommended as a supplement, rather than a replacement, for breast milk.
Innovators in Infant Nutrition
Here are some of the companies and organizations making a big splash in infant nutrition:
Because some babies are lactose intolerant, and those same babies tend to also be sensitive to soy, Israel’s Else Nutrition has developed a plant-based infant formula without soy and with a complete nutritional profile for infant health. Else’s formula has exploded in popularity among parents looking for clean, natural, plant-based infant foods. Developed by pediatricians and child nutrition experts, Else was awarded the “Best Health and Diet Solutions” award at the 2017 Global Food Innovation Summit.
US biotech firm Conagen recently made headlines by synthesizing a sustainable and cost-effective form of lactoferrin, a critical protein in breastmilk. By combining synthetic biology with fermentation, the company is developing affordable alternatives not just for lactoferrin, but also for other challenging compounds like capsaicin, vanillin, musk, and other valuable flavor and fragrance molecules. Conagen was awarded “Product of the Year” in 2020 by Synbiobeta in recognition of their achievements in human oligosaccharide and lactoferrin.
Dutch dairy giant FrieslandCampina is targeting food safety and traceability in their infant formula brand FRISO. The company has implemented grass-to-glass traceability, with every product having a unique digital identity, and a blockchain-compatible cloud-based system that handles more than 2 million unique customer interactions per day. The system provides transparency for consumers, provides assurance of quality, protects against counterfeits, and can be used to mitigate recalls. First implemented in China and Hong Kong, where there is a history of quality concerns in infant foods, the company believes that all consumers will soon expect that level of transparency and traceability.
Singapore/US startup TurtleTree Labs is nearing commercialization of their first product: cell-based lactoferrin. The company harvests mammary cells and then induces lactation, for completely lab-based, natural, continuous milk production. TurtleTree aims to produce the highest quality infant nutrition products in a way that is completely sustainable and infinitely scalable.
Nonprofit PATH is working on technologies to help solve the global breastmilk shortage by supporting the global milk bank network. Women who donate breastmilk are usually collecting and processing it at home, so PATH developed an app to help guide the process of flash-heat pasteurization, to make donating milk easier, safer, and more consistent. There are no global guidelines or standards for breastmilk donations, which makes international cooperation and collaboration between milk banks difficult. PATH is working on building a robust global network that speeds communication, shares best practices, and helps milk banks support each other, during Covid and beyond.
Infant nutrition is critical for the health and development of every generation, and innovators around the world are seeking to find new and better ways to meet the demand. Every aspect of this field offers opportunities for growth and change, from chemistry and biology to technology and regulatory affairs. These passionate companies are finding new ways to improve health and wellbeing from the first hours of life, and grapefrute is excited for the possibilities of the future.