What Exactly is Human Milk?
We’ve been drinking human milk since the dawn of time. Our bodies have evolved to absorb, digest, and enjoy human milk more than any food. Indeed, research has shown time and time again that human milk is an exceptional source of natural nutrition for all.
Human milk, or breast milk, is produced from the mammary glands of mothers shortly before childbirth. Small, grape-like clusters of sacs in the breast, called alveoli, extract water, proteins, sugars, and fats from the mother’s bloodstream to manufacture human milk.
Human milk is made up of 88% water, followed by 7% lactose, 3-5% fat and nearly 1% protein. Human milk also contains vitamins, minerals, and amino acids essential for health.
What Are the Benefits of Human Milk?
More than 200 known compounds make up human milk, with new health benefits being discovered all the time.
For example, human milk’s casein and protein composition could help with dairy intolerance. Dairy intolerance is sometimes caused by difficulty breaking down casein, which can be more challenging to digest than whey protein. A recent study has shown that even lactose intolerant individuals feel lower discomfort when drinking milk with lower levels of a casein subtype.
Human milk has an ideal ratio of 40:60 casein to whey, with casein subtypes optimized for the human body. In comparison, cow milk has more than three times the amount of protein as human milk and a 80:20 ratio of casein to whey - great for a growing calf but hardly for a human.
Not only is human milk designed to be easily digested by humans, but it also provides immune boosting properties. Human whey proteins, such as lactoferrin, lysozyme, and lactoperoxidase, serve as antimicrobial and antiviral agents for a baby’s early immune system. Signaling proteins, known as interleukins, also help balance the body’s inflammatory response to foreign threats.
Other components of human milk provide benefits such as improving brain development and cognitive function, providing food for beneficial bacteria in the gut microbiota, and stimulating the immune system. (P.S. Stay tuned for our future articles that will dive into more of these benefits!)
What Can You Use Human Milk For?
While human milk offers many health benefits, it can be challenging to figure how to include human milk in your diet. But nowadays, people are far more adventurous and looking for new ways to explore the potential of human milk in daily cuisine.
Back in 2011, artist Miriam Simum experimented with the idea of human milk cheese and created an art installation where people could sample varieties of this cheese.
Human milk can be used to replace bovine milk in any form of dairy. For example, some mothers make yogurt from their breast milk to help wean their babies. The same goes for other dairy products like butter, ice cream, hot cereal, and smoothies.
Where Can You Get Human Milk?
While many mothers with newborns can produce their own breast milk, the main sources of breast milk for women who are unable to lactate are milk banks and milk sharing communities.
Non-profit breast milk banks serve as formal channels where donors can provide milk for other mothers. The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) accredits these banks, which ensure the milk is free from pathogens, viruses, or drugs, and safely processes and distributes it to hospitals, medical centers, and research institutes. Only 10% of milk sharing happens through a milk bank.
Most mothers seek out breast milk informally through friends, family, or social media. However these sources may not have been properly screened, tested, and processed for safety. Not only that, but the milk could be spoiled, contaminated, or contain harmful chemicals, drugs, or alcohol. The milk could also be adulterated with cow’s milk to increase volume and take advantage of buyers.
One modern approach to solving this challenge has been to culture human mammary cells in the laboratory. By coaxing these cells to produce milk under strict conditions, safe and clean breast milk can be produced at scale.
This could open up new possibilities worldwide. Mothers without regular access to clean breast milk, such as those living in impoverished or vulnerable communities, could feed their newborns without relying on infant formula. Breast milk could also be used to produce easy-to-digest dairy products for babies, children, and even adults with digestion-related medical conditions or allergies to cow milk.
The opportunities to include human milk into our everyday food are endless and would give access to an important new source of nutrition for us all.