Human milk oligosaccharides

Why are human milk oligosaccharides a hot topic in infant nutrition?

Human milk oligosaccharides (HMO) receive a lot scientific interest in the field of infant nutrition. Novel technologies enable to produce isolated HMO isoforms at large scale, enabling their use as food ingredient. In the European Union first HMO are permitted as novel food for addition to infant formula.

HMO in the focus of research

Publications on HMO have quadrupled since 2010 (National Library of Medicine This is because novel processing techniques allow production of certain HMO isoforms on industrial scale (Faijes et al. 2019⁠; Sprenger et al. 2017). Until the turn of this millennium, human milk oligosaccharides could only be extracted from mother's milk, their function tested small scale and limited to laboratory settings (Bode et al. 2016⁠; Furuike et al. 2003). Cow's or goat's milk are poor sources for milk oligosaccharides because concentrations are low and lack the diversity of those in human milk (Zeuner et al. 2019).

Isolated HMO are available as infant formula ingredient

These generated molecules are structurally identical to those isolated from mother's milk. Four of these – 2'‑fucosyllactose (2'‑FL) – lacto‑N‑neotetraose (LNnT) – the mixture of 2'‑fucosyllactose with difucosyllactose (DiFL) – and as of April 2020, lacto‑N‑tetraose (LNT) are permitted on the European market and in food for infants (EU/2016/375⁠; EU/2016/376⁠; EU/2019/1979⁠; EU/2020/484).

As part of the novel food application process in Europe, a safety evaluation is made by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) on behalf of the European Commission. Novel food applications are currently ongoing for 3'‑ and 6'-sialyllactose (3'‑SL and 6'‑SL, respectively) []. As a consequence, communication on these components in foods is increasing in parallel to the novel scientific insights on their function and potential health benefits generated at high pace. 

HMO addition to infant food may be benficial and they may be prebiotic, reduce infection risk, promote the immune system and cognitive development, and provide sialic acid, needed for brain development.

Regulations for HMO for addition to foods in the Europe Union