While promoting breast feeding during the last three decades, major attention was focused on the immunity the child gets from its mother through her milk. Of course hundreds of research reports have cited other health advantages for the infant to be fed with breast milk as long as it is possible, though the high pressure promotion by the infant food manufacturing industry often tempts mothers to switch over to infant formula too soon. The accumulated evidence so far regarding the multiple advantages of breast feeding will be a driving force for many mothers to stick to her own milk to safeguard the health of their tender children from many types of diseases.
The role of Lactoferrin present in milk, acting literally as a natural antibiotic active against many pathogens, has been well documented. Similarly the ability of Alpha Lactalbumin to annihilate all types of cancer cells protects the vulnerable child against these dreaded diseases. Lactoadherin, a glycoprotein in breast milk is reported to be active against rotavirus in the intestine. Milk prostaglandin, unique to human milk has a role to protect the delicate intestinal mucosa of the child from harms way. There are nitrogen containing oligo saccharides present in human milk having growth promoting effect on the beneficial Lactobacillus bifidus bacteria.
It was only recently that carbohydrates other than Lactose started receiving attention of the nutritionists and probably lack of precise analytical techniques must have obscured the role of these lactose based oligo saccharides which form the third largest component in human milk. Values as high as 8-12 gm of oligo saccharides per liter have been reported in human milk. Using modern analytical tools it has been brought out that depending on individuals, number of such oligo saccharides may vary from 33 to 124. Earlier a broad group of lactose linked compounds was known to be existing and they were broadly grouped under the name gynolactose. They have been compared to the modern day"soluble fibers" which are supposed to act at the Gastro-intestinal level without actually getting digested in the system by human enzymes and breast milk thus can rightly claim also as a source of "dietary fiber" to the infants.
According to the present belief each oligo saccharide ligament inhibits different pathogenic bacteria and probably it is an act of evolution that only human milk contains these special compounds, to provide protection to the babies as soon as they are born from many of the predating microorganisms. The ability of these bioactive substances for allowing selectively the growth of Bifidobacterium longum, a particular strain that can coat the linings of the intestine of the child for resisting many undesirable bacteria, is now being recognized. Besides their role as bacterial inhibitors, these Lactose oligo saccharides also act as substrates for many beneficial bacteria in the infant colon and contribute to the vital difference in fecal pH and fecal flora between breast fed and formula fed infants. Sialic acid, considered essential for brain development, is formed in the intestine consequent to the action of beneficial bacteria on oligosaccharides of human milk.
The above findings probably will open up new avenues for the food industry to develop or modify infant formulae that can work best for premature babies and those delivered through surgical intervention. Such a logic is premised on the fact that these babies do not have Bifidum bacteria to start with and hence are deprived of the early protection from the oligo saccharides. Search for alternate sources of Lactose oligo saccharides probably will intensify because of its preeminence as a protective "nutrient" to infants. Recent discovery that whey, a by-product of cheese industry, does contain these nutrients in small quantities may give a new phillip to developmental work to "beneficiate" whey for recovery of Lactose oligo saccharides in sufficient quantities and evolve viable technologies for the same. Already fructose oligo saccharides and galactose oligo saccharides isolated from plant sources are being promoted under the pro-biotic banner, as they do aid in the growth of Bifidum bacteria. Of course such scientific activities must not give the impression that breast milk can be substituted with any formula man may contrive.