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Home » Digestive Health and Wellness » Making Infant Nutrition Evermore Like Mother’s Milk

Breast milk is the gold standard for feeding babies. It’s uniquely suited to the human infant, both in its nutritional composition and in the non-nutritive bioactive factors that promote healthy development. 

But for many reasons, not every mother can breastfeed. While there’s no replacement for breast milk, infant formula manufacturers are continuously trying to make products that are nutritionally as close as possible to breast milk.

Human milk also contains thousands of distinct bioactive molecules that protect against infection and inflammation and contribute to immune system maturation, organ development, and healthy microbial colonization. 

Some of these molecules, such as human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), butyrate, and lactoferrin are being investigated as novel preventive and therapeutic agents for human nutrition. 

Breakthrough nutrition for babies and adults

Now, biotechnology company Conagen, has made a breakthrough in sustainable nutrition — developing a novel and proprietary process for scalable production of non-GMO human milk oligosaccharide (HMO), a complex carbohydrate that is naturally found in human milk. 

HMOs, the third largest solid component in human milk after fat and lactose, are targeted prebiotics that have many benefits for babies, including directly stimulating the immune system by promoting good gut bacteria, blocking pathogens, and strengthening the gut barrier function. 

Conagen’s innovative work on these prebiotics is changing the nutrition landscape, setting the stage for high-quality and cost-effective next-generation infant formula products that most closely resemble human breast milk. 

“We’re taking an inspiration from nature,” says Dr. Casey Lippmeier, Conagen’s vice president of innovation, who calls infant formula the “first impossible food” because it exists in nature but there’s no practical way to scale it from the original source.

The most abundant HMO in human milk is 2’-fucosyllactose (2’FL). Dr. Lippmeier says that infant formulas should be fortified with 2’FL to deliver the best immune system benefits for babies. 

Conagen researchers initially harnessed industry-leading bioconversion technology in the production of natural sweeteners and have now expanded its platform for making HMOs. 

“We make it by a bioconversion process, which makes it eligible for recognized non-GMO labels,” he says.

In comparison, nearly all other HMOs on the market are produced directly by genetically engineered organisms. 

Ongoing innovation

Conagen recently won “Best Product of the Year” honors from SynBioBeta’s (SBB) Synthetic Biology Global Conference for their non-GMO HMO and for human lactoferrin. Shortly after, Conagen introduced a third important nutritional offering, butyrate.

They’re the first company to commercialize an odorless and tasteless butyrate releaser. Conagen’s proprietary product is notable because it doesn’t have a foul smell like competing products. It delivers butyrate, the short-chain fatty acid produced naturally by gut microbes. 

Butyrate is present in human milk and exerts a pivotal role in modulating digestive health. It helps optimize development and function of the immune system, and to stabilize blood sugar and cholesterol levels. It even supports the body to deflect numerous human diseases including infections, obesity, allergies, autoimmune diseases, and cancer. 

“Evidence is mounting for the role played by butyrate in helping infants tolerate new foods, thus reducing the development of food allergies,” says Dr. Lippmeier.

“Butyrate basically signals to your immune system that you have an appropriate growing gut flora,” continues Dr. Lippmeier, calling the product an important postbiotic for gut health and immunity, with additional potential for wide use in adult nutrition.

Conagen’s further success in the infant nutrition area includes a sustainable process for the production of the human milk protein lactoferrin, a critical iron-binding compound for immunity, iron nutrition, and healthy infant digestion. 

The first-of-its-kind human lactoferrin protein can be produced at commercial scale via a fermentation process. When this protein is added to infant formula, it conveys most of the nutritional properties of lactoferrin from breast milk. 


While these natural compounds are being used in infant formula, they also have applications for adult foods and supplements. For example, lactoferrin could have applications for iron absorption supplements for adults and kids. HMO’s have potential in immune boosting and sports performance supplements for adults.

In addition to its cutting-edge science, Conagen has world-scale manufacturing capabilities. They’re expanding their portfolio and looking to partner on innovations within food and beverage, flavor and fragrance, nutrition, and pharma.

Connect with Conagen to learn more about their nutritional offerings:

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