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In a nation where formula is the preferred nutrient for infants, a healthier alternative to both traditional breast milk and formula may be available globally within the next ten years. A team of scientists from State Key Laboratories for Agro Biotechnology at China Agricultural University, led by director Li Ning, have recently published their findings involving a number of experiments with a herd of genetically altered Holstein cows. As a result of genetic modification, these cows produce milk that is in many ways similar to human breast milk. This finding, which was published this spring, has sparked a flurry of interest. While this is exciting news for those looking for a healthier alternative to formula, some are concerned about the safety of feeding genetically altered milk to infants.
If this does end up on the market, there are a number of benefits that this new milk has to offer. Because they were able to infuse these cows with specific human DNA as embryos, their milk now has large amounts of Lysozyme. This protein, found in large quantities in human milk, helps to prevent bacterial infections. Additionally, the proteins Lactoferrin and alpha-lactalbumin, were also produced in higher quantities, and these proteins help to boost immune levels. Not only would it help give infants whose mothers are unwilling or unable to breastfeed these important proteins, in the cows that were used in this experiment, it helped to prevent the bacterial infection mastitis.
The packaging that this new “human” cow milk would come in has not been decided on yet, but it will most likely be similar to the powder formula on the market today. Part of this experiment included using the temperature required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to pasteurize the milk to ensure that it still retained the nutritional integrity of the Lysozyme. They found that in order to process it into milk powder that a higher temperature is required, but it is still nutritionally sound. This milk is primarily for human infants, although it could be drunk by anyone, especially those with nutritional deficiencies or intestinal problems, since Lysozyme has been shown to increase gut health.
It also offers a nutritional choice for those who wish to give their picky toddlers a healthy nutritional boost. Some have combated the picky-eater syndrome that is common among two-to-five-year-olds by choosing to continue breastfeeding long after infancy. Some mothers extol the benefits of long-term breast feeding, and even the WHO recommends two years of breastfeeding, especially in poorer countries. Extended breastfeeding is clouded by negative stigma. Many people feel uncomfortable with the idea of a child who is able to walk and talk, but is still going to mom to have a drink. If this is put on the market, it could offer an alternative to a mother wanting to give her toddler greater nutrition, but not wanting to experience the negative social stigma or the inconveniences associated with breastfeeding.
Another possible benefit to adding Lysozyme is the increased shelf life in comparison to traditional formula. This would allow for shipping to a wider range of areas, and decreased loss of product in stores and at home due to expiration.
Despite the possible benefits, there are a number of serious concerns associated with giving infants milk from genetically altered cows. Especially in the United States and Europe, the general public is not very receptive to these types of products. An increase in the demand for organic and home-grown food has led to a number of companies deciding to change the ingredients in a number of their products, or offering slightly pricier organic and natural alternatives to their more highly processed foods. Even if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does eventually allow this new milk to be stocked on grocery store shelves, the number of people willing to buy it is questionable. Only time will tell if this new “human” breast milk will be here to stay or if it will be soon forgotten for a better product.