Breastfeeding newborn infants brings a wide range of physical and emotional benefits to the baby, but it’s not always possible. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, only about 25 percent of infants in America are fed breast milk exclusively through their first six months. But mother’s milk is a complex substance, and even just partially replicating its superior role in infant health is an impossibility.
“Infant formula is one of the first ‛impossible foods,’” says Casey Lippmeier, vice president of innovation at Conagen, a Boston-based biotechnology company. “If you’re trying to come up with an alternative to breast milk, you need to think very carefully about what the components are, what each component does for infant health, and how to reciprocate it into a formulation. That’s a very big task.”
One component of breast milk that has proved difficult to replicate is a protein called lactoferrin, which plays an important role in digestion and protecting infants from infection. Formula manufacturers typically turn to cow’s milk for a source of lactoferrin. While bovine lactoferrin is effective, it isn’t as efficient as the version found in breast milk.
It’s also difficult to process. “When you’re using cow’s milk as your base for infant formula, you’re generally operating with pasteurized milk,” explains Lippmeier. “That completely destroys the lactoferrin in any form that’s going to be useful. You actually have to add it in after a purification process.”
Another concern with bovine lactoferrin is sustainability. “Cows are a renewable resource,” notes Lippmeier, “but they take up a lot of land, water, and energy. There are other food-producing systems out there, specifically plants, that are much more sustainable, reducing the overall environmental impact and resources required.” Lactoferrin produced via fermentation, for example, starts with plant-based resources to produce the protein, resulting in a more sustainable process that uses fewer resources.
Conagen recently announced the development of a unique, nature-based lactoferrin that closely matches the lactoferrin found in breast milk. It’s produced via a fermentation process, which can be scaled up to commercial production levels — while maintaining sustainability.
“You can actually make the molecules that are in breast milk by other organisms through fermentation,” says Lippmeier. “You can get them to be much closer in nutritional performance than what you get from a cow.”
This new process produces lactoferrin that offers similar benefits to the kind found in human breast milk. “When adding our next generation lactoferrin, we believe it is closer to the nutritional properties of breast milk,” Lippmeier says. “While bovine lactoferrin does improve infant formula, it doesn’t do it nearly as well as lactoferrin from breast milk.”
In order to spread these benefits as widely as possible, Lippmeier and Conagen have kept costs in mind. “The last challenge is making it at the right price point,” he says. “It’s important to make sure that we’re keeping the costs down because this is a food product — we’re trying to feed babies here. There can’t be too much of an economic pressure. We try to make this very cost-effective for the manufacturers, and they’ll pass on those savings to parents.”
Lippmeier knows choosing a formula for your child can be overwhelming. “The first and most important thing is to have a conversation with your pediatrician about infant nutrition,” he advises. “Consider the specific needs of your infant.” And while he stresses that mother’s milk will always be ‛the gold standard’ for infant nutrition, he also believes no one should hesitate to use formula if necessary. “If you’re a mother that for whatever reason is just unable to breastfeed, either for medical reasons or other reasons, infant formula is as good as it can be as an alternative.”