Human milk is often referred to as “gold standard,” and for good reason. This nutrient-dense fluid has been perfected over thousands of years of evolution to be exactly what infants need nutritionally at the exact moment they need it. In fact, the composition of breast milk continuously changes to meet the demands of a growing baby, even as frequently as throughout a single feeding. With benefits such as lower instances of illness, infections, diabetes and allergies, breastfed infants are more likely to grow up healthier overall. But what if breastfeeding isn’t possible, or not ideal for a new mother? Infants who are supplemented with formula often miss out on the same benefits as their breastfed counterparts. Fortunately, new scientific advancements have arrived to help bridge this nutritional gap.
Complex name, complex structure
Researchers have long tried to understand the makeup of breast milk, and its composition has been the subject of numerous studies. What they have discovered is that human milk is mostly comprised of water and nutrients. If we drill the nutrients down even further, we find that complex carbohydrates, called Human Milk Oligosaccharides, are the third most abundant component, right after lactose and fats.
It is a complex name for an even more complex structure. Human Milk Oligosaccharides, or HMOs for short, serve as a food source for our more well-known microscopic friends, probiotics. In fact, HMOs are known to be “bifidogenic,” meaning they help populate Bifidobacteria in the intestines, fostering an overall healthy intestinal environment.  Balanced intestinal flora means an infant will have an easier time fighting off infection and promoting healthy digestion.
Currently, there are more than 130 oligosaccharides which have been identified. The functions of each is still ongoing, but we do know that the most common HMO in human milk is 2’-fucosyllactose (2’FL). Because of its abundance, 2’ FL is the most thoroughly researched HMO so far and its benefits have been substantiated in clinical and experimental trials.
 Ye et al 2013a, Ye et al 2013b, Ruiz-Moyan et al 2013, Thongaram et al 2017)
- Strengthens gut maturation and intestinal barrier function
- Nourishes beneficial microbiota – strong selective bifidogenic effect
- Strong associations between presence of high levels of 2’FL and positive health outcomes in infants
- May help brain development and cognitive functions
- May help modulate systemic immune functions
- May act as a decoy receptor for certain pathogens
Through this research, 2’FL can now be replicated through microbial fermentation and is structurally identical to 2’FL in breastmilk.
The first 1,000 days
The first three years of a child’s life are critical to helping them establish a healthy microbiome. These years serve as a very small window of opportunity to alter and shape their microbial community, which may have lifelong effects. The ability to replicate 2’FL and supplement children who would otherwise not have received its benefits is a major nutritional breakthrough. But it doesn’t stop there. It is well-documented that probiotic supplementation in infants has been clinically demonstrated to be safe, well-tolerated and can bring about potential health benefits including supporting immune and gastrointestinal function. And because it is established that HMOs serve as a food source for these good bacteria, it is only the natural progression of things for manufacturers to start to consider the potential of combination products that harness the synergistic effects of probiotics and HMOs together, in one formulation.
In fact, studies have been able to pinpoint which strains are able to utilize HMOs as well as which ones have the potential to have complementary effects. By harnessing this information, manufacturers of children’s nutritional products will soon be able to create better products to support total wellness and help bring infant formula closer to human milk than ever before.
The future of infant nutrition
In 2018, DuPont, a leading probiotic manufacturer and microbiome research pioneer, launched CARE4U, a branded line of 2’FL, that offered just that, the ability to combine HMOs with its already well-established line of probiotic strains. With decades of research and development experience in the area of infant nutrition, DuPont is uniquely suited to guide producers of infant and toddler formula into this new frontier of infant nutrition. As microbiome research grows and we gain more insight into the beneficial uses of both HMOs and probiotics, we can expect the world of infant nutrition to evolve along with it.