Thursday, January 14, 2010


Human milk is well known to be a complete food containing qualitatively and quantitatively nutrients that can nourish a newborn baby at least for 6 months without any supplementary food. Besides its nutrient content, mother's milk is also endowed with immuno-biochemicals that confer protection to the baby from many infections. Common perception that cow's milk which is richer in proteins and some other nutrients can be more nutritious does not have scientific validity and in fact feeding unmodified milk from cows can even be harmful to the child in the long run. It is against such a background that the relentless campaign, nationally and internationally, to promote breast feeding, needs to be appreciated. If a cow's milk is adequately nourishing for its calf, why is it not considered suitable for homo sapiens? The simple answer is the system difference, as man is made different from other creatures in the planet. Biological specificity is the hallmark of evolution.

If breast milk is so good, why are many mothers reluctant to continue to feed their siblings with their own milk as much as possible? Is it ignorance or compulsion that is responsible for this reluctance? It is true during the last two decades the trend has been more and more mothers adopting the practice of breast feeding and with the availability of manual as well as motorized milk pumps at affordable cost, even a working mother can continue providing her milk to the baby, as long as milk is available. In spite of heavy promotion of the so called "humanized" milk by the dairy industry, due to combined efforts and sustained campaigns of the medical fraternity, the governments, many NGOs and international organizations, the practice of breast feeding, at least for the first 6 months after birth, is universally being accepted.

Infant foods developed by the dairy industry suffer from several handicaps in terms of nutrient composition and other health boosting components compared to mother's milk. The quality and quantity of proteins, levels of vitamins C and E, biologically available iron and zinc, concentration of sodium and potassium, fatty acid profile including essential fatty acids like linoleic, linolenic, DHA and ARA, unique oligosaccharides (HMO) present in human milk are significantly different in formulated infant foods, some of them either not found in the latter or are externally added during processing. This concern has been addressed to some extent by the Food Chemicals Codex (FCC) , an internationally recognized compendium of standards for food ingredients by recommending optimal levels for three nucleotides and two DHA oils for incorporation into infant formula by the industry. Still commercial products are not strictly comparable to human milk as many biologically active components like lipase enzyme which facilitates fat absorption, even if present, cannot survive the thermal processing of milk during manufacture of infant formula. According to one recent report breast milk contains more than 400 nutrients which are not found in milk from other sources.

With such credentials, it is but natural that there is a demand for supply of human milk by mothers unable to feed their babies for one or the other reason. The Milk Bank movement started 2-3 decades ago has been able to provide safe quality milk and such Banks are usually attached to reputed Hospitals with adequate infrastructure to handle and store human milk, similar to the concept of a blood bank. There appears to be an emerging demand for human milk and some sellers are reported to be asking for rates as high as $1000 a liter!
Presence of Taurine, one of the amino acids implicated in brain development during early days, seems to have enhanced the demand for human milk. It is quite possible that human milk may become a commercial commodity if prices rule high. Commercial freeze drying technology, available to day can convert liquid milk into stable dry powder preparations without destroying the biochemical components as well as health nutrients present in milk. There are moral, ethical and legal issues involved in making human milk an industry product for general consumption. Distortions can set in where artificial means of generating milk in females without going through the process of conception, may even be attempted which can affect the societal values and sanctity attached to procreation and conception.


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