Mother’s milk is the perfect food for infants, meeting a growing baby’s nutritional needs with its protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamin and mineral content. The macronutrient ratio of human milk is quite variable, depending on the diet and health of the mother, the frequency with which the baby nurses, and the age of the baby. It is likely that much of this variability reflects the baby’s specific dietary needs at the time.
Of course, baby formula is specifically formulated also to meet a baby’s nutritional needs, so here’s where mother’s milk truly shines. Human milk also contains a variety of bioactive compounds to support growth and development, including: growth factors; hormones to stimulate growth and regulate metabolism; various immunoactive compounds to complement a baby’s developing immune system and protect against infection; and oligosaccharides and probiotics to help colonize the baby’s digestive tract and support a healthy gut microbial community. It’s these bioactive compounds that make breastfeeding so beneficial (on top of other reasons like bonding, budget, and benefiting the mother’s health too… in fact, declining to breastfeed increases a woman’s risk of premenopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, and increases her chances of retaining weight gained during pregnancy). Studies show that breastfed babies have lower risks of serious infections, including gastroenteritis and pneumonia, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Breastfed babies also have a lower risk of chronic disease later in life, including asthma, allergies, eczema, childhood obesity, diabetes, and leukemia.
It’s worth taking a moment to summarize the wealth of bioactive compounds in human milk, because it reinforces the concept of milk as a functional food.
Major Bioactive Compounds in Milk
|Macrophages||Protection against infection, T-cell
|Stem cells||Regeneration and repair|
|IgA/sIgA||Pathogen binding inhibition|
|IgG||Anti-microbial, activation of phagocytosis
(IgG1, IgG2, IgG3); anti-inflammatory,
response to allergens (IgG4)
|IgM||Agglutination, complement activation|
|IL-6||Stimulation of the acute phase response, B
cell activation, pro-inflammatory
|IL-7||Increased thymic size and output|
|IL-8||Recruitment of neutrophils, pro-
|IL-10||Repressing Th1-type inflammation,
induction of antibody production,
facilitation of tolerance
|IFNγ||Pro-inflammatory, stimulates Th1 response|
|TGFβ||Anti-inflammatory, stimulation of T cell
|TNFα||Stimulates inflammatory immune activation|
|G-CSF||Trophic factor in intestines|
|MIF||Macrophage Migratory Inhibitory Factor:
Prevents macrophage movement, increases
anti-pathogen activity of macrophages
|TNFRI and II||Inhibition of TNFα, anti-inflammatory|
|EGF||Stimulation of cell proliferation and
|HB-EGF||Protective against damage from hypoxia
|VEGF||Promotion of angiogenesis and tissue repair|
|NGF||Promotion of neuron growth and maturation|
|IGF||Stimulation of growth and development,
increased RBCs and hemoglobin
|Erythropoietin||Erythropoiesis, intestinal development|
|Calcitonin||Development of enteric neurons|
|Somatostatin||Regulation of gastric epithelial growth|
|Lactoferrin||Acute phase protein, chelates iron, anti-
|Anti-viral, prevents inflammation by
enhancing phagocytosis of apoptotic cells
|Adiponectin||Reduction of infant BMI and weight, anti-
|Leptin||Regulation of energy conversion and infant
BMI, appetite regulation
|Ghrelin||Regulation of energy conversion and infant
|OLIGOSACCHARIDES & GLYCANS|
|HMOS||Prebiotic, stimulating beneficial
colonization and reducing colonization with
pathogens; reduced inflammation
|Gangliosides||Brain development; anti-infectious|
|MUC1||Block infection by viruses and bacteria|
|MUC4||Block infection by viruses and bacteria|
|up to 1400 different mRNAs||Development and maturation of the immune system plus growth promotion|
|105 to 107 bacteria daily||Important species of Staphylococcus, Gemella, Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, Propionibacterium, Actinomyces, Corynebacterium, Serratia, Sphingomonas, Enterobacter, Ralstonia, Bradyrhizobium, Streptococcus, Escherichia, Enterococcus, Veillonella, Prevotella, Pseudomonas, and clostridia to help colonize the digestive tranct|
Adapted from Ballard O, Morrow AL. Human milk composition: nutrients and bioactive factors. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2013 Feb;60(1):49-74. doi: 10.1016/j.pcl.2012.10.002.
That’s a pretty impressive list, making mother’s milk a truly remarkable food, not simply providing nourishment but also directly impact a baby’s growth and development! No wonder the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding children for at least their first 2 years of life, breastfeeding exclusively (meaning no supplementing with formula or baby foods) for the first 6 months. And, even breastfeeding until a child’s second birthday is potentially not long enough for the full benefits. In hunter-gatherer societies, babies are typically weaned gradually during their fourth year, usually during the mother’s next pregnancy. When the mother doesn’t get pregnant again, children are generally breastfed longer, until age 5 or even older.
Unfortunately, in the United States, only about a third of babies are breastfed exclusively at 3 months, and a mere 11 percent of babies are breastfed exclusively at 6 months. These statistics reflect many cultural barriers to breastfeeding, such as short maternity leaves, lack of social support, and insufficient troubleshooting resources. Mothers can greatly improve their chances of successfully breastfeeding their babies by seeking knowledgeable support, such as a lactation consultant or a local La Leche League chapter (www.llli.org).
So, in the absence of a culture that adequately supports breastfeeding, most commonly, medical professionals encourage the consumption of whole cow’s milk instead. It’s recommended that children aged 1 to 3 consume 2 8-ounce servings of milk daily, and for 4 to 8 year olds, it’s recommended they consume 2.5 servings daily. This is because various scientific studies show that milk is important for supporting the growth not just of infants, but also of young children, thanks to both its nutrition and its bioactive compounds.
The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) has collected data since 1971, including survey data, physical examinations and laboratory tests, with the goal of assessing the health and nutritional status of Americans and to track changes over time. Analysis of NHANES data has revealed that milk consumption is a significant predictor of child growth, even when other contributors (like birth weight, sex, ethnicity, energy intake, and household income) are accounted for. For example, an analysis of children ages 2 to 5 showed that those who consumed the most milk were 1.2 cm on average taller than those who consumed the least milk (notably, this association was not found for other dairy products). And, while 4-year olds who drink 3 or more servings of milk per day have a 16% higher chance of being overweight or obese than those who drink between 0.5 to 2 servings of milk daily, there’s no relationship between dairy intake and BMI among children of 5-10 years or teenagers.
Studies looking at consumption of milk alternatives, like almond and soy milks, show an inverse relationship with growth. In this case, at age 3, children consuming 3 cups per day of milk alternatives were 1.5 cm on average shorter than kids who consumed 3 cups per day of cow’s milk.
While the value of milk for adults may be up for debate (see The Great Dairy Debate), not so for supporting the growth and development of young children. The science showing that cow’s milk supports a child’s growth is compelling, but given that human milk is ideal, how similar is cow’s milk to human milk? The answer is not very.
Human milk contains 40 to 55% carbohydrate (mainly lactose) whereas whole cow’s milk is only about 30% carbohydrate. Human milk is relatively low in protein, making up just 7 to 10% of its total calories. In contrast, cow’s milk is about 20% protein. They type of protein is also different. The ratio of casein to whey of human milk is approximately 1.9 whereas the ratio for cow’s milk is 4.3. The much higher casein content of cow’s milk relative to human milk likely makes it harder to digest. Human milk also contains much higher concentrations of the amino acids taurine and cysteine than whole cow’s milk.
Human milk is high in fat, with approximately 40 to 55% of its calories coming from fat. On average, 43% of that fat is saturated, 37% is monounsaturated (including up to 7% of total fat being natural trans fatty acids like conjugated linoleic acid, see TK), and 20% is polyunsaturated with an omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of 6.8. Fat is necessary for brain development, hormone regulation, and immune system development. Fat is also needed for the baby’s digestive system to absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. The total fat content of whole cow milk is similar to human milk at about 50%, but 75% of the fat in cow’s milk is saturated, 22% is monounsaturated and only 2% is polyunsaturated with an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 3.7.
There’s also differences in terms of vitamin and mineral content. For example, whole cow’s milk is quite low in zinc, vitamin A, vitamin B3, vitamin C and vitamin E compared to human milk, while containing about 3 times more sodium and potassium, 4 time more calcium, and 6 times more phosphorous! In addition, the high heat pasteurization and homogenization that most cow’s milk goes through before making its way into your glass destroys many (but not all) of those bioactive molecules that support growth and development. This is one reason why more people are choosing raw or low-heat (VAT) pasteurization (see also The Great Dairy Debate).
Human milk is quite unique in its nutritional composition and no mammalian milk is actually super close, although there are many options more similar to human milk than cow’s milk. However, there’s another huge drawback to cow’s milk that is much more relevant: It’s a highly allergenic food for humans.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that whole cow’s milk not be introduced until 12 months of age, due to potential hazards associated with early introduction of cow dairy such as development of iron-deficiency anemia, higher rates of dairy allergy, and increased risk of type 1 diabetes.
Cow’s milk allergy affects up to 7.5% of infants, and the earlier the exposure to cow’s milk proteins (such as in infant formulas that contain intact cow’s milk proteins), the higher the probability of developing an allergy. This is because the infant intestinal barrier is more permeable than adult guts (see What Is A Leaky Gut? (And How Can It Cause So Many Health Issues?)).
Given that milk is important for child growth and development, given that most women do not breastfeed beyond 3 months (let alone the Herculean task of breastfeeding until 5 years of age!), and given that cow’s milk seems a potentially nutritionally insufficient and, most importantly, highly allergenic replacement for human milk, what is the better option?
The Better Choice: Camel Milk
A variety of studies show that, while allergy to camel milk is certainly possible, the allergy rates are much, much lower than that of cow’s milk and that the vast majority of people with cow’s milk allergy are able to consume camel milk.
For example, one study in 35 children (averaging 21 months old) with diagnosed cow’s milk allergy showed that 80% of them tested negative to camel’s milk on a skin prick test and that all children were able to consume camel’s milk without any signs of a reaction (even though they suffered hives, atopic dermatitis, chronic vomiting and/or anaphylaxis symptoms after consuming cow’s milk.)
In another study in 38 children (averaging 21.5 months old) with diagnosed cow’s milk allergy compared camel milk to goat milk as an alternative. While 63% of children tested positive on a skin prick test to goat milk, only 18% tested positive to camel milk.
The reason for the lower allergy rate to camel milk is that the protein structure is more similar to human milk, so there is a much lower frequency of cross-reaction to cow’s milk (recall that an allergy is driven by IgE antibody production against a specific protein, and that sometimes there’s enough similarity in protein between foods that an antibody can bind to several different food proteins; see also Gluten Cross-Reactivity: How your body can still think you’re eating gluten even after giving it up.). In a series of studies, authors took blood samples from patients with cow’s milk allergy and tested their IgE antibodies against cow’s milk protein for cross-reaction with proteins in milk from other animals. The majority of milk proteins from sheep, goat, buffalo, horse, donkey, pig, and deer show immunoreactivity with the antibodies against cow’s milk proteins. Camel milk was the only tested milk that did not show immunoreactivity.
Researchers conclude that camel milk is the most appropriate substitute for cow milk.
While the proteins in camel milk are very similar to human milk (and only about 60% similar to cow milk proteins), camel milk offers a few more advantages. While its macronutrient breakdown is still not super close to human milk (all animal milks differ from human milk nutritionally), it is a big step closer compared to cow’s milk, with 35% calories from fat (53% saturated, 41% monounsaturated, and 5% polyunsaturated with an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 14.2), 25% calories from protein (although still casein dominant with a casein to whey ratio of 3.3, the good news is that camel milk has a high proportion of β‐casein compared to α‐casein and is A2 dairy, see Goat Milk: The Benefits of A2 Dairy), and 39% calories from carbohydrates. While camel’s milk has quite a lot more calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and sodium than human milk, the amounts of iron, zinc, manganese, vitamin A, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, and vitamin C are similar.
Also, let’s be clear: camel milk is not a substitute for formula for babies younger than 6 months old who are not exclusively breastfed. The argument here is to replace cow’s milk (not formula) with camel milk to support the growth of children up to historical age of weaning of about 5 years. Beyond that age, camel milk does have some interesting therapeutic properties (there’s some evidence that camel milk may improve autism spectrum disorder symptoms, and that camel milk may improve blood sugar regulation in diabetics, for example), but the argument for milk as an important growth promoter for children begins to wane.
So, I know what you’re thinking: “where am I supposed to get camel milk”?! How about your doorstep?
Desert Farms sells fresh camel milk and camel milk powder, shipped to your door within the US and Canada. Their camel milk is certified Grade A and their camels are raised on pasture and feed on grass, hay, dry forage and occasionally organic oats (no soy, corn or GMOs). All of Desert Farms’ camel milk is gently low-temperature pasteurized to kill pathogens while maintaining nutritional properties of thermally sensitive compounds (including bioactive growth factors and immune supporting compounds like lactoferrin and immunoglobulins), and non-homogenized. They also regulalry test their camel milk for purity to be free from 900+ contaminants and heavy metals.
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