A new study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 10 percent of breast milk samples bought online were adulterated with cow’s milk.(1) Since buying breast milk online was a boon for many mothers, especially the ones with low or no milk production, this revelation has caused quite a stir. Though breast milk is undoubtedly the best for your baby, we try and find out why it’s so special and how it differs from cow’s milk.
Why Is Breast Milk Unique?
The right balance of antibodies, water, fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals in breast milk are crucial for a child’s overall growth and development. The best thing about breast milk is that it constantly adapts to the growing needs of your baby. So as a baby grows, the mother’s breasts start making more milk and colostrum (mother’s first milk) begins to change into mature milk.
Superior Protein Quality
The protein content of breast milk is the prime distinguishing factor between the two. Though human milk has low protein content than cow’s milk, it does not make breast milk nutritionally deficient. The types of amino acids that form the proteins are important here. Taurine, an amino acid found in a mother’s milk, helps in the development of the eyes and brain. Since the body cannot convert other amino acids into taurine, it is necessary that the body get it from breast milk.
Cow’s milk contains double the amount of casein (a protein) than breast milk and is difficult to digest for infants. It also contains lactose, a milk sugar that babies can’t digest, which can cause digestive problems such as mucus formation, gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation.
Easily Digestible Fats
Lipase, an enzyme present in breast milk, breaks fat down into smaller globules for it to be easily absorbed into the bloodstream. That’s the reason why babies digest breast milk so easily. Fat levels in a mother’s milk are low in the beginning and high towards the end of the feeding. Babies eagerly nurse to get the low-fat, thirst-quenching milk first and then linger over the high-fat thicker milk which is like dessert for them.
Breast milk also contains large amounts of linoleic and linolenic fatty acids that are essential for the development of the myelin, (substance that covers the nerves) in babies. It helps in the transmission of messages throughout the body and brain.
Bioavailability, the amount of nutrients that the body can utilize, is high in breast milk despite it being being low in calcium, phosphorus and iron. This in turn is enhanced by certain substances that increase the absorption of nutrients. For example, vitamin C present in milk increases the absorption of iron.
Essential Enzymes & Hormones
Breast milk contains the epidermal growth factor, which promotes the development of body tissues. Lipase aids in digestion and the other hormones contribute to the baby’s growth, physiology and metabolism.
Doesn’t Cause Allergy
Unlike cow’s milk, breast milk does not cause allergies. Cow and soy milk are one of the most common food allergens.
Antibodies present in the breast milk build immunity and fight against bacteria and viruses. These antibodies are not present in cow milk.
Ongoing research only continues to validate the various health benefits breast milk confers on babies. Every mammal makes milk for its own offspring, which is the same for humans as well. Cow’s milk should ideally be introduced after two years of age, as most children do not develop lactose intolerance before that.
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1. Keim SA, Kulkarni MM, McNamara K, Geraghty SR, Billock RM, Ronau R, Hogan JS, Kwiek JJ. Cow’s Milk Contamination of Human Milk Purchased via the Internet. Pediatrics. 2015 Apr 6. pii: peds.2014-3554. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 25847797.