Milk polar lipids for improving infant feeding formula – a promising area for research

Arun Kedia, Managing Director, VAV Life Sciences

Human breast milk is the gold standard when it comes to the early nutrition of neonates. However, breastfeeding may not always be possible for some mothers for various reasons. This is when most people turn to infant feeding formulas as an alternative. Some young mothers may also opt for infant formulas over breastfeeding simply due to anxiety. Whatever may be the reason, one cannot ignore the growing demand for such products and the impact on the lives of infants that depend on them. For this reason, the onus lies on the manufacturers of infant feeding formulas to pursue newer ways of improving the nutritional and immunity benefits of their products.

It may seem on one hand that formula feeding provides a convenient alternative to breast milk, for the flexibility it offers in terms of time, and frequency of feeding. However, on the other hand, it loses out on important antibodies, which are normally found in mother’s milk. As a result, infants may risk developing a weak immune system and being exposed to infections and chronic diseases.

The only way to improve an infant feeding formula would be to replicate the composition and structure of human breast milk, in the best way possible. Interestingly, feeding formula supplemented with a particular component of bovine milk has been gaining a lot of importance as a hot topic for research lately, and.with good reason.       

MFGM – a secret potion to improve infant nutrition formula?

The Milk Fat Globule Membrane (MFGM) is a component of milk comprising a tri-layer cocktail of polar lipids, glycolipids, and proteins. It has been at the centre of nutrition research, studied primarily to enhance the efficacy of infant nutrition formula. 

Going by some of these studies, scientists are starting to see promising results with infant formulas supplemented with bovine MFGM. They have observed better neurodevelopment and higher levels of defence against infections – both bacteria and viruses. Some of these also recorded a reduction in the incidence of diarrhoea. Additionally, certain components like polar lipids and membrane proteins have been shown to present several health benefits. 

Can dairy milk polar lipids come close to human breast milk?

The development of a lipid that closely resembles human milk fat would mark a turning point in the infant formula industry. Going by the encouraging results reported by various studies, it may seem that milk polar lipids are getting closer to that mark.

Polar lipids like sphingolipids are present in high concentrations in MFGM and help in the neuronal development of infants and the protection of neonates from infection. They are also known to impact various aspects of lipid metabolism and gut physiology. These are important factors for the overall development of neonates and infants during the growth stage. Sphingolipids like sphingomyelin are found in the myelin sheath covering axons of animal cells, thus, its supplementation greatly contributes to healthy cognitive development.  

Other polar lipids are important for brain functioning and immunity development. Gangliosides can inhibit potentially pathogenic micro-organisms in the intestine of premature babies and stimulate the growth of good bacteria. Also, ceramides are identical to skin lipids and their supplementation can improve disturbed skin conditions.

An infant formula composition is designed to provide sufficient nutritional benefits. Unfortunately, some of the components of human breast milk cannot be fully replicated in these formulas.

Unlocking the potential of milk polar lipids

Lipids in human breast milk are extremely complex and diverse and the health outcomes are not yet fully understood. Introducing milk polar lipids may be an important way of improving the quality of infant formulas going forward but it will require more research.

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