‘It’s critical for the development of the child’: How gut health is pioneering innovation in infant formula development

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That ‘breast is best’ has long been known by infant feed professionals. The challenge for baby formula manufacturers is therefore to make products that can do as best they can in replicating the unique diversity and complexity of human milk and reassure those women who cannot breastfeed that their babies can enjoy healthy growth and development.

Part and parcel of this challenge is to use science as a key driver of innovation and product development. And Danone, among others, is concentrating its efforts on advancing its understanding of breast milk to improve the performance of its breast milk substitutes.

Working at the cutting-edge of infant nutritional health is Dr Rocío Martín, a Senior Director Global Medical Affairs and Health Innovation for Danone’s Specialized Nutrition Unit, which contains the infant formula brand Nutricia.

The wonder of human milk 

Human milk is “impossible to mimic exactly”,​ she admitted. “It’s the first personalised nutrition that you can have… Breast milk is a very complex fluid and it provides the best nutrition for infants but is also tailored for their needs. For instance, if a baby has a cold, the mother’s milk will actually adapt to provide the baby what it needs at that moment.

“Increasingly, however, we have a better picture of…macronutrients, composition of fats, lipids, carbohydrates, and we look at that and mimic what we can to bring it as close as possible.”

Breastfeeding is also an important factor in establishing an infant’s immune system and is associated with reduced risk of childhood obesity, allergies and asthma and NCDs. While these links have been known “for many years”,​ knowledge on how breast milk and breastfeeding can help establish a healthy gut microbiota early in life is quickly emerging, Martín explained.

A baby’s gastrointestinal tract undergoes rapid growth during the first 1,000 days of life. Ensuring healthy development of the gut is therefore vital as gut function is closely linked to overall health and wellbeing, as well as the development of the immune system. 

Much of the wonder of human milk is down to its high concentration of oligosaccharides: complex carbohydrates that are only found in human milk. The latest science is telling Danone that these oligosaccharides also help a baby’s gut health and therefore its positive development.

Knowledge too is growing about the effects of caesarean birth on the gut health of the baby.

The number of babies born via C section has risen to 1 in 3 in Europe, Martín told us. “This disrupts the microbiota because the babies do not receive the bacteria from the mother at birth and then it has a different composition of the microbiota of the bacteria in the gut.”

This bacteria is beneficial, she added, by helping create an environment in the gut with a lower pH that will not allow pathogens to grow.

“It will be the first bacteria that get into the gut of the baby and start creating that ecosystem and community in your gut,”​ she explained. “If a baby is born by C-section it doesn’t get exposed to that so the first bacteria that get in their gut is different.”

This difference, or gap, in a baby’s gut’s bacteria community does eventually resolve, or close to, typically in three to four months but sometimes up to a year. However, this disruption in exposure to bacteria has unfortunately also been associated with a risk of childhood obesity, allergies and asthma and NCDs. “It occurs in a moment when the baby is still developing and the immune system is still learning how to react to bacteria and to different substances,”​ elaborated Martín, “so it’s critical for the development of the child. That’s why a lack of bacterial can have an impact on the health of the baby.”

The good news for parents of those babies born by C-section, however, is that biotics can provide an opportunity to modulate the baby’s gut after birth. The ‘bacteria gap’ in C-section babies, for example, can be restored, revealed Martín, with a specific combination of a probiotic and a prebiotic, called a synbiotic, which provides bacteria and food for the bacteria. “When you provide this in a formula immediately you see that this gap is closed,” ​Martín explained. “The infant born by C-section also will have more amounts of oligosaccharides and bifidobacterium very rapidly which creates the right environment for them to have a normal microbiota composition which will link to better health outcomes.”

Growing link between gut health and infant health 

Danone has recently unveiled new data showing for the first time that its synbiotic was successfully able to restore the gap in bacteria in Chinese babies born by C-section. 

The evidence was presented at the recently-held 8th Probiotics, Prebiotics, Postbiotics in Pediatrics Congress, where Nutricia discussed the importance of infant gut health.

Another key takeaway from the symposium concerned mastitis, an inflammation of breast tissue that Nutricia estimates stops one in four mothers globally from breastfeeding. Danone has a consequently shown that mothers who consume a probiotic in the last trimester have 60% less chance of getting mastitis. 

Nutricia will continue, via its Actimel brand, to develop products with different biotics tailored to the different needs of babies and mothers. The challenge now, said Martín, is communicating the benefits of these products to heath professionals.

“We still need to continue explaining the difference between the different biotics: pre-pro-post and synbiotics and what it means for the health of infants. The main questions we always get are: ‘how can I know what to recommend?’; ‘where do I find the information?’ and ‘which one is best for each condition? So there’s still work to do on that message.”