12 December 2017

Research project will create healthier infant formula


Many newborn babies are given infant formula, which is not as beneficial as natural breast milk. Therefore, a group of researchers from University of Copenhagen, in collaboration with researchers from Arla Foods Ingredients, will investigate whether infant formulas can be made healthier by minimising the processing of the whey proteins used for infant formulas. The research project is supported by the Green Development and Demonstration programme (GUDP) and the Danish Dairy Research Foundation.

Picture: Lene Hundborg Koss

A new research project, called INFANT-I, will clarify whether a more gentle processing of ingredients for infant formula can improve the health of newborns that are fed with infant formula.

“Worldwide, there are many children who are fed with infant formula and we know that the properties of infant formula are not as good as breast milk. Therefore, researchers have been trying to imitate breast milk as well as they possibly can for many years,” explains Associate Professor Marianne Nissen Lund from Department of Food Science at University of Copenhagen

The ingredients for infant formula are industrially processed and undergo several heat treatments to ensure food safety. The question is whether this relatively harsh processing, which changes the quality of the protein, is part of the reason that infant formula does not have the same nutritional properties as natural breast milk.

“We do not know what this means for protein quality at the molecular level when the infant formulas are processed with multiple heat treatments and that is what we are going to find out. We know from earlier studies – also carried out here at University of Copenhagen – that newborn piglets have better intestinal health if the infant formula has undergone a milder treatment where the whey proteins remain more intact and natural. However, we will still pasteurise the milk for food safety, but only to the point that is necessary,” says Marianne Nissen Lund.

Associate Professor Marianne Nissen Lund in the laboratory at the Department of Food Science (FOOD) at the University of Copenhagen. Picture Lene Hundborg Koss

Piglets as a model for newborns

In connection with the project, which begins 1 July 2018, researchers will produce different protein ingredients for infant formula, which will be processed differently.

“Some will be very processed, while others will be treated more gently. At Department of Food Science we will make a chemical and structural characterisation of the proteins so we know the quality of the proteins in the different infant formulas. In addition, we will test the biological effects of the processed protein ingredients. Then we will feed it to newborn piglets, which we already know are a good and internationally recognised model for newborn babies and we will examine the effect of the different types of infant formula on their intestinal health,” says Marianne Nissen Lund.

She hopes that the project, which ends in June 2022, will lead to an improved infant formula, thus providing newborn babies who, for one reason or another cannot be breastfed, with a better nutritional start to life.