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Thursday, July 24, 2008

"Chemicals" In Breastmilk: A Primer

Lactoferrin. Lysozyme. Endocannabinoids. The next time you read a scare article about the "chemicals" we're putting into our babies, think of this: somebody near where you live, probably right down your street, is pouring these particular chemicals into the bodies of the most vulnerable humans. Infants. Newborn babies.

Who's doing this horrible thing?

Nursing mothers. All those chemicals are important components of human breastmilk. (Lactoferrin binds to iron, boosting iron uptake and taking it away from invading bacteria and fungi who require it. Lysosyme works with lactoferrin to attack the cell walls of some bacteria. Endocannabinoids stimulate suckling and appetite.)

Here's another myth you can throw out, the perfectness of breastmilk. It can be deadly. "For every six months that an HIV-positive women breastfeeds, there is about a 4 per cent chance of the infant becoming infected. Despite this low infection rate, it's estimated that breastfeeding is responsible for up to half of the 640,000 HIV infections in infants each year."

Of course, only those who believe in every silly and ignorant internet article on milk, written by people who not only have no knowledge of science, but fear what they don't understand, subscribe to myths like those. Intelligent people, like my readers, know that when you see an article decrying "chemicals" in food, you can stop reading immediately without any worries that you might be missing some useful information. And they know that despite the risks, exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months is still the greatest single gift a mother can give her infant.

Too few mothers, even in the western world, breastfeed exclusively for six months, however. "[I]n the US, just 11 per cent of babies are exclusively breastfed up to the age of six months. In the UK, the figure is just 3 per cent." Mothers in developing nations face widespread beliefs that formulas are somehow better than breastmilk for infants, even though contaminated water supplies mean that formula-fed babies can be six times more likely to die in the first two months.

All these quotes and statistics come from an important article in New Scientist magazine, Making formula milk more like mum's, by Jo Whelan, from the July 14, 2008 issue.

Whelan's overall point is that while persuading mothers to breastfeed is crucial, the worldwide lack of consistent breastfeeding means that improving baby formulas so that they more closely resemble breastmilk will also save many lives and produce far healthier infants and adults in the long term.

Yet even that is subject to the very fears about science that produce the idiot myths that already infest the internet. Better formula will depend on duplicating the kind of human proteins that include the "chemicals" I mentioned in the first paragraph and many others. Today this is such a difficult and expensive bit of technology that nobody in the third world could expect to see any of them. Few wealthy Americans could even afford this enhanced formula.

There is one possible source:

The only way to mass-produce human proteins is to genetically engineer other organisms to make them, and plants are emerging as the most practical option. At least seven human milk proteins have already been produced in modified food crops, mainly potatoes and rice, with more in the pipeline. The leading company in this area is Ventria Biosciences of Sacramento, California. It is growing rice in Kansas which contains human milk proteins which, it hopes, can be added to infant formula and oral rehydration salts.

Rice is particularly attractive, as it rarely causes allergies in humans and is often used as a weaning food. However, several giant agribusiness and food companies have protested at Ventria's plans. The fear is that these transgenic crops could end up in our food chain.

Yep, it's the "dread" genetic engineering raising its head again, threatening to give babies healthier food. Because of the fearmongering that already exists, it's unlikely that any of these proteins will be created this way in any foreseeable future.

I certainly can't guarantee that these proteins, these techniques, these innovations are the absolute right way to proceed. Nobody can say that about any advance, made by any means. In a world in which tomatoes, er, I mean jalapeƱos, may be dangerous, or thought to be dangerous, or may at some time in the future prove to be dangerous, people are suspicious of everything even while demanding and devouring new and unfamiliar foods every day.

In a world with food shortages leading to riots, with crops being taken out of the food supply to turn into fuel, with obesity at an epidemic in westernized countries, with people being gulled and duped by flagrantly ignorant advice about diet, nutrition, and food, we need more understanding, innovation, and productivity and far less fear and nonsense.

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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Steve:
This is a brilliant post about the importance of breastmilk proteins in infant health and nutrition. If it is ever cost-effective to make these proteins in rice, such as proposed by Ventria, then it would likely be the best thing a Mother could do for her child if she can't breastfeed (as in your HIV example, or for any number of other reasons). This company, Ventria, has made alot of progress recently: see this link: http://www.ventria.com/news/Press%20Release%2011-12-07.asp

Do you know when and where Ventria plans to sell their product? I would like my 8 mo old twins, who are adopted and not breastfeeding, to have the benefit of this in their formula. They seem to be allergic to cow's milk proteins. We have tried soy-based formula and it is better, but nothing like the real thing!! If it helps them develop and is closer to breastmilk, all the better. We would pay for that innovation.

- A Dad

Anonymous said...

There certainly is a lot of speculation and fear tactics used by "social" groups that hinder the development of genetically grown plants. But, it will be the public that I hope will have the final say. Ventria's commitment to helping children and other people become healthier should be commended, not chastised. I hope our governments act in the best interest of their citizens--do not hinder these companies, like Ventria Bioscience, but help them.