According to new research, babies which consume breast milk rather than infant formulas have a different and more beneficial set of gut bacteria. Dr Parker and his associates explored how the way in which infants were fed may affect the development of their individual gut microbiota. Although the benefits of breast milk have long been known, the new research may have uncovered a unique property which may explain why breast milk is better than infant formula at protecting infants against illness.

The in vitro study involved growing two strains of E. coli bacteria in samples of infant formula purchased from a store, cow’s milk, donated breast milk and secretary immunoglobulin A ( SlgA), an antibody in breast milk which helps to mediate an infant’s immune system. Bacteria began to multiply in all the samples within minutes, but there was a significant difference in the way that the bacteria grew. In the breast milk, the bacteria began to aggregate together over a broader range of bacterial concentrations, to form a thin layer known as a biofilm, which functions like a protective barrier against infections and pathogens. The bacteria in the cow’s milk and infant formula specimens tended to grow in a more wild fashion, and did not adhere together to form a protective shield.

Zhang and associates said that the research provided some relevant insights into how human breast milk may protect against infant diseases and believe that future studies should investigate why human breast milk influences bacteria to form biofilms, and whether other strains of bacteria are affected in the same way.

Reference: Zhang, AQ et al (2012). Human whey promotes sessile bacterial growth, whereas alternative sources of infant nutrition promote planktonic growth. Current Nutrition and Food Science. 8 (3): 168- 176.

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