Breast Milk: A Functional Food

Paula Paciarotti · December 27, 2022
This article has been written and endorsed by biochemist Luz Eduviges Thomas-Romero
As we all know, functional foods are good for our health, as they contain both macro and micronutrients. And breast milk is undoubtedly a functional food.

Breast milk is a functional food. This means that in addition to being the best food for your baby, it also acts as medicine.

According to science, functional foods are dietary items that, besides providing nutrients and energy, beneficially modulate one or more targeted functions in the body. This happens by enhancing a certain physiological response, or by reducing the risk of suffering from a disease.

Official definition of functional food

Nowadays, the terms “functional foods” and “nutraceuticals” are quite common. However, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there’s no formal regulatory (American) definition associated with functional foods.

On the other hand, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines functional foods as “whole foods along with fortified, enriched or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health, when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis, at effective levels based on significant standards of evidence.”

How does a functional food work?

It’s important to bear in mind that the intestine is the connection between diet and the metabolic process that sustains life. This is why the food industry focuses on the intestine, when developing functional foods.

Breast Milk: A Functional Food

In order to understand the huge potential of breast milk as a functional food, we need to identify the processes diet regulates:

  • Sense of fullness.
  • The amount and degree of decomposition and absorption of macronutrients in the small intestine.
  • Lipid metabolism.
  • Microbial composition (microbiome) present in the colon.
  • Sugar fermentation.
  • Intestinal immune system regulation. 

What are the benefits of breast milk?

Breast milk is a complex fluid. Therefore, science hasn’t identified its composition and mechanisms of action. From among the different mechanisms, we’ll explain two:

1. Human breast milk provides the baby with immune cells

According to different studies, the amount of cells in human milk is between 10000 to 13000000 cells/ml. This information reflects the variety among individuals.

Furthermore, colostrum contains more cells than mature milk. Even so, the same mother may present variations in the cell counting from one intake to another. Thus, this is a dynamic process, full of unknown characteristics.

So, a question arises: what kind of cells does breast milk contain and what are their functions? Scientific research studies have proven that the cells in the breast milk are white blood cells from the mother’s blood circulation. 

Breast Milk: A Functional Food

What’s more, it’s quite interesting to know that this “donation” of cells, from the mother to the baby, bears functional implications. So far, science has proved that leukocytes that come from the milk can reach the newborn’s bloodstream.

Besides, leukocytes from the mother are present in the newborn’s intestine for 60 hours after the milk intake. All this information suggests that the cells transferred through the milk play an important role against infections. Defensins are natural antibiotics that act against bacteria, fungus and viruses.

2. Breast milk contains natural antibiotics

Naturally, our bodies produce and secrete small proteins that have microbicidal activity. In fact, there’s a wide variety of these proteins or antimicrobial peptides, and defensins are one of them.

Finally, breast milk is a fluid rich in defensins, especially when we talk about colostrum. Thus, the evidence that proves defensins as broad spectrum antibiotics confirms that breast milk is a functional food.

  • Martirosyan, D. M., & Singharaj, B. (2016). Health claims and functional food: The future of functional foods under FDA and EFSA regulation. Functional Foods for Chronic Diseases; Food Science Publisher: Dallas, TX, USA, 410-424.
  • Hassiotou, F., Geddes, D. T., & Hartmann, P. E. (2013). Cells in human milk: state of the science. Journal of Human Lactation, 29(2), 171-182.
  • Baricelli, J., Rocafull, M. A., Vázquez, D., Bastidas, B., Báez-Ramirez, E., & Thomas, L. E. (2015). ß-defensin-2 in breast milk displays a broad antimicrobial activity against pathogenic bacteria. Jornal de pediatria, 91(1), 36-43.