Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMO): Creating Differentiated Offers In Infant Nutrition

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018

Marianne Heer, Scientific Marketing Manager Human Nutrition of BASF SE, discusses the importance of HMOs with molecular structures identical to those occurring in human milk for optimal infant nutrition.


There is broad consensus that breast feeding is the best nutrition for newborn infants. Not only does it assure normal growth and development during infancy, it is also associated with favorable mid- to long-term outcomes, e.g., lower risk of respiratory or gastrointestinal infections, allergy, diabetes or obesity in later life.

For mothers who cannot breastfeed, infant milk formulas could be the next best alternative to breast milk. Intense research is ongoing to identify specific components of human milk and to make them available as ingredients for formula—always with the objective to narrow the nutritional gap between human milk and cow’s milk-based infant formula.


Designed By Mothers, Discovered By Scientists

Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMO) is a breakthrough differentiator: they are the third largest solid component in human milk, following lactose and fat. The amount is about 300 times higher compared with bovine milk.

HMOs were discovered many years ago, however, it was only during the last decades that detailed insights into the complexity of the structures were gained, thanks to the availability of more precise analytical methods.

The HMO composition of human milk is complex and varies significantly among mothers, over the course of lactation and according to their genetic set-up. The HMO concentration in early milk is highest and it declines by about 30 percent over the course of lactation. In mature human milk, the content may still be as high as 5 – 20 g/L compared to less than 0.05 g/L of bovine milk.

Today, more than 200 HMO molecules have been identified, of which 2’-fucosyllactose (2´-FL) is the most abundant in most mothers.

Up to now, galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) have often been added to infant formula to mimic HMOs. However, both do not occur in human milk. On the other hand, fucose and sialic acid which appear to be important structural and functional components of HMOs are absent in infant formula with GOS/ FOS.

Thus, the availability of HMOs with molecular structures identical to those occurring in human milk is a breakthrough in infant nutrition.


The First Superfood For Babies’ Healthy Development

During infancy, HMOs are important to shape the microbiota by promoting the colonisation of beneficial bacteria, mainly bifidobacteria. More and more ongoing studies show the clinical relevance of deviations from “normal” microbiota, especially during early life (e.g., dysbiosis preceding allergic diseases, metabolic syndrome or obesity). Thus, developing a microbiota close to that of breastfed infants is the objective.

Healthy immune functions are a pre-requisite for the prevention of infections and allergies. About 10 years ago, it was found that Campylobacter diarrhea—one of the major causes of diarrhea during infancy—occurred less often in babies whose mother’s milk contained high levels of 2’-FL. In the meantime, mechanistic studies shed light on this observation: due to the specific molecular structure, 2’-FL is able to act as a decoy receptor for pathogens. Instead of binding to the carbohydrate receptors on the intestinal cell surfaces, pathogens bind to 2’-FL and the adhesion to the host cells—the first step of infections—can be prevented. Moreover, 2’-FL can directly modulate intestinal cell responses and the thus strengthen the mucous barrier.

Recent data suggest that 2’-FL can directly attenuate inflammation in experimental models. This confirms HMOs as being an “innate” immune system of human milk whereby the mother protects the vulnerable newborn child. 2’-FL can also represent a novel preventative active to reduce mucosal inflammation associated with diverse bowel disorders.

Allergies are on the rise in many countries and besides genetic predisposition, environmental factors play an important role. Observational studies suggest that fucosylated HMOs may have a preventive role in infants with high allergy risk.

Further promising results stem from rodent models, in which 2’-FL was shown to have a positive effect on learning and memory functions when supplemented during infancy.


Human Milk Oligosaccharides: Precious Components For Infancy And Beyond

Despite the encouraging results from clinical and experimental studies, HMO research is still in its infancy. Given the various functions and benefits already discovered for 2’-FL, this molecule is a promising ingredient not only for infants, but also for children and adults in various life-stages, meeting consumer’s desire for ingredient solutions inspired by nature.

The availability of 2’-FL for usage in infant formula is an important first milestone to make this happen.

When developing the 2’-FL fermentation at BASF, we focused on upscaling characteristics right from the start: the 2’-FL fermentation has been developed as a platform technology which is available for further molecules as well. BASF has successfully mastered the complete in-house development of 2’-FL, based on the capabilities of our central research network in Ludwigshafen, Germany.

Serving the infant formula market, product safety is clearly of utmost importance. This is exemplified in the way we deal with potential microbiological contaminations, considering the most rigid standards (e.g. (EC) 2073/2005).

Due to the selection of a stable fermentation strain, there is no need for the use of antibiotics during production and therefore, BASF’s 2’-FL is 100 percent free of antibiotics.

BASF’s leadership in science-based solutions, production technology and operative excellence, ensures reliable and efficient production set-up, providing the flexibility required to consistently meet customer needs, especially in fast-growing markets. Protecting our customer’s most precious and vulnerable consumers is a commitment we make in our vision to provide the right nutrients to the right people at the right time.

Marianne Heer – Status September 4, 2018 – for Asian Pacific Food Ingredient Journal


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