What do you need know about Human Milk Oligosaccharide (HMO)?
Human milk oligosaccharide. It’s a mouthful of a word. Literally.
Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) are present in great quantities in human breast milk; the third largest element after lipids and lactose. While numerous studies have determined that breast milk is a great benefit to babies, just what these HMOs—a group of carbohydrates or complex sugars—accomplish remained a mystery for quite a while.
Numerous studies over the last several decades determined that they really do nothing for a baby’s nutrition, but, rather, play another incredibly important role in infant health: as nondigestible carbohydrates, they make their way to the colon, acting as a sort of prebiotic, where they feed the good bacteria, such as bifidobacteria, helping the body to ward off a variety of infections and inflammations.
And, it turns out, what is good for the baby, is also good for the adult. Let’s stop here for a second. What is the difference between a prebiotic and probiotic? In simplified terms, a probiotic, which we have all heard of, are the good bacteria that live in our body and are also found in some foods, such as yogurt; while a prebiotic is indigestible food that feed the probiotics in the gut.
Bear with the background story. If you’re interested in sleek scientific findings that fit together like a glove, this is for you. The discovery of these nondigestible sugars, which make up 10 percent of the dry weight of human milk, went through a metamorphosis of sorts over the decades as one study built upon another in one fascinating discovery after another.
In the early 1900s, leading researchers noticed that babies not fed breast milk suffered a higher mortality rate than their breast-fed counterparts. Those studying this sad concept noticed that bacteria in the stools differed between breast-fed versus non-breast-fed babies. Later, scientists linked this difference to human milk, or the lack of, and named this elusive component that fed the good bacteria (part of that gut microbiota living in the intestines), the bifidus factor. Simultaneously, but in separate research, scientists looked into breast milk components and discovered a non-lactose carbohydrate that they named gynolactose. It took another 20 years to discover they were the same entity, and that there were well over a hundred of these, now called HMOs, that fed the good bacteria.
(It’s interesting to note that not all mothers have HMOs in their breastmilk. This component is also largely absent in farm-animal milk, as well.)
As the research war waged on, scientists determined the HMOs, particularly the one dubbed 2’-FL, could aid babies in the battle against infectious diseases, in addition to helping fight viruses of the gut, respiratory tract and urinary tract, and aid the immune system long term.
Moreover, further studies established that an abnormal gut microbiota constituted as an environmental factor contributing to diabetes pathology. Low levels of bifidobacteria have been reported in diabetics, in addition to obese individuals, plus those taking antibiotics and others with bowel issues.
With all of the information coming out of the studies, the importance of HMOs was hard to ignore. Ways to use HMOs began to make way to the forefront, both as an ingredient in baby formula and as a supplement for adults. Studies indicated that HMOs, 2’-FL and LNnT, were safe for healthy adults and could create stability within the gut microbiota. Today, the benefits to adults equal those to infants aiding in the fight against irritable bowel syndrome, allergies and the aging brain, according to a 2019 Bloomberg story.
Millions are being invested in the HMO market and the big guns like Dow DuPont, Abbott and Nestle SA are seeing an exponential rise in both the popularity of HMO baby formula, first introduced by Abbott in 2016, and adult supplements. The HMOs created through fermentation is able to duplicate the positive effects of the HMOs in human breast milk aiding both formula-fed babies and adults.
There are multiple benefits for adults, from head to gut. HMO prebiotic powder has a dual effect both encouraging the growth of good bacteria while warding off the bad bacteria. In addition, as mentioned before, it can aid in fighting infections and inflammations and at the same time, it provides a component that helps with brain cognition
Studies have indicated that interventions, such as HMO supplements, are a viable option for those needing to replenish some of that good bacteria. Stay tuned for the next chapter. Research continues regarding the production of some of the other valuable HMOs found in human breast milk.
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Lianghui Cheng, Renate Akkerman, Chunli Kong, Marthe T. C. Walvoort & Paul de Vos (2020) More than sugar in the milk: human milk oligosaccharides as essential bioactive molecules in breast milk and current insight in beneficial effects, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, DOI: 10.1080/10408398.2020.1754756
Vandenplas, Y.; Berger, B.; Carnielli, V.P.; Ksiazyk, J.; Lagström, H.; Sanchez Luna, M.; Migacheva, N.; Mosselmans, J.-M.; Picaud, J.-C.; Possner, M.; Singhal, A.; Wabitsch, M. Human Milk Oligosaccharides: 2′-Fucosyllactose (2′-FL) and Lacto-N-Neotetraose (LNnT) in Infant Formula. Nutrients 2018, 10, 1161.