It’s generally accepted that breast milk is better for a baby than formula milk. However, for a variety of reasons, breastfeeding isn’t always possible for some women.
But fear not, new research has honed in on one of the key components that gives breast milk its extra oomph. Armed with this knowledge, researchers set about making an improved baby formula that offers many of the same benefits of breast milk, including potentially boosting brain development.
Breast milk doesn’t just contain calories to "fatten up" a baby, it's loaded with a variety of other helpful components – such as white blood cells that help fight infection, and special nutrients to help build a healthy gut microbiome – that help to foster growth, a sturdy immune system, and general well-being. Importantly, some of the ingredients also seem to play a central role in the development of the brain.
One of breast milk's key components are droplets of fat coated by a membrane containing nutrients, including proteins, sugars, and lipids. While it’s not totally clear why these nutrients in the milk fat globule membrane (MFGM) are so crucial, it appears they are not found in many formula mixtures.
“Evidence is beginning to accumulate which suggests that nutrients in the membrane are important,” study co-author John Colombo, professor of psychology and director of the Life Span Institute at the University of Kansas, explained in a statement. “In homogenized formula, the droplets are broken up, and these membrane nutrients are typically removed.”
To highlight the importance of the MFGM nutrients, researchers carried out a double-blind, randomized controlled clinical trial looking at nearly 300 infants in China, half of whom were fed with standard formula and half that received formula with added bovine MFGM from a cow.
As reported in the Journal of Pediatrics this week, the MFGM-added formula boasted some impressive results. Infants receiving the MFGM supplement formula had higher neurodevelopment scores from 4 to 9 months of age. They also had improved sustained attention at 1 year and slightly stronger language skills at 18 months. On top of that, they had fewer gastrointestinal and respiratory problems.
The study of MFGM is still in its early days, so the researchers are not certain of the nature of the association with cognitive development. Nevertheless, it's certainly a fascinating link that begs further inquiry. The study authors hope their trial – the first of its kind – add the growing bank of data on the issue and lay some of the groundwork for further research.