Before we embark on this discussion, please keep in mind that not all breast milk is created equally. As we compare the nutritional differences between commercial infant formula and breast milk, note that diet will influence the quality and quantity of mother’s milk. So while a container of baby formula is consistent, breast milk is not, depending on a mother’s diet and a baby’s needs. The crux of Dr. Weston A. Price’s teaching is the need for extra nutrition during baby’s formative period to ensure optimal development. As Kristin Michaelis, the author of Beautiful Babies, states: “No matter what you eat, they say, your breast milk will be perfect. This – there’s no other way to put it – is bunk. Pure myth. The more nutrient-dense the mother’s diet, the more nutrient dense the mother’s milk. We also know the opposite is true – the less nutrient-dense the mother’s diet, the less nutrient-dense her milk.” Read our dietary recommendations for pregnant and nursing women.
There are clear nutritional benefits to breast milk that I’ll summarize below. Please keep in mind that the nutritional differences between commercial baby formula and mother’s milk will vary according to how well nourished she is.
Sharon Perkins and Carol Vannais have written an article whereby they compare formula and breast milk. One of the differences they focus on is how breast milk is custom-made nutrition.
“Formula and breast milk look very different; formula is creamier and looks richer than breast milk. This may lead you to believe that formula is more nutritious for your baby, but that’s not the case.
One of the amazing things about breast milk is that your milk is specially formulated to have the right composition for your baby, and to contain exactly the right amounts of nutrients. Bottle-fed babies [or more precisely, formula-fed babies] receive the exact same nutrients every time they eat. Breast milk, on the other hand, continually changes in composition so that your baby gets what he or she needs at any age.”
The authors consider colostrum:
The first liquid the breasts produce, which starts a few months before the baby is born, actually doesn’t even look like milk. Colostrum, which is yellow and thicker than breast milk, is a great example of how a mother’s body custom-makes the right nutrition for your baby. Here are some of its benefits:
- Colostrum has a high concentration of antibodies, especially IgA, an antibody that helps protect the lungs, throat, and intestines.
- Colostrum helps “seal” the permeable newborn intestines to prevent harmful substances from penetrating the gut.
- Colostrum is very high in concentrated nutrition.
- Colostrum has a laxative effect, which helps the baby pass the first bowel movements (and prevents newborn jaundice).
- Colostrum is low in fat, high in proteins and carbohydrates, and very easy to digest.
Within a few days after delivery, a woman’s body begins to produce mature milk that takes over the work of giving her baby the necessary ingredients for healthy growth. Colostrum is still present for around two weeks, however the milk produced during this time period is called transitional milk.
No matter what animal it comes from, milk contains the basic nutritional elements of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.
Sylvia Onusic highlights, “Breast milk from a well-nourished mother is composed of hundreds of substances—over one hundred fats alone.” As Mary Enig explains in her article Fat and Cholesterol in Human Milk:
Fat and cholesterol are very important components in human milk. In fact, the milk from a healthy mother has about 50 to 60 percent of its energy (kilocalories) as fat. The cholesterol in human milk supplies an infant with close to six times the amount most adults consume from their food. [For further reading, see: Lipids in human milk also available to preview on the Springer website].
When a woman has many children, the level of fat in her milk usually decreases with each succeeding child. This will not happen, however, if the mother maintains a high quality diet. In some parts of the world, such as China, the new mother is given a diet very high in animal fat that includes 6-10 eggs a day and almost 10 ounces of chicken and pork for at least a month after the birth of her infant. This diet ensures that the level of fat in her milk is as high as possible. [See the study cited: Breast milk fatty acid composition: a comparative study between Hong Kong and Chongqing Chinese].
Some women produce milk that has a fat level similar to the Guernsey or Jersey cow, which is high fat, and some produce milk that more closely resembles the Holstein cow, which is lower fat. The higher fat is more desirable, of course, for the developing infant. The higher fat milk will have more of the fat molecules that are needed for their many functional properties, and will also supply enough energy so that all of the protein can be used by the infant for development. Fat is spoken of as “protein sparing.” Without adequate fat, the protein in human milk cannot be used.
Studies of milk from 224 Danish mothers showed that they produced milk with a very wide range of fat content. The average amount of fat was 39 grams per liter of milk and the range was from 18 grams to 89 grams per liter of milk. That is the equivalent of an average milk fat content of 3.9 percent with the range between 1.8 percent and 8.9 percent. This would mean that some babies would be getting the equivalent of 2 percent milk and some would be getting the equivalent of table cream, with the average infant getting the equivalent of whole Guernsey or Jersey milk. Studies have shown that the average levels of fat in the milk of Canadian women to be 3.2 percent, and the fat levels in two different areas in China to be either the same at 3.2 percent or somewhat higher at 3.8 percent.
Dr. Sears highlights the following differences in fat between commercial infant formula and breast milk:
- Rich in brain-building omega 3s, namely DHA and AA
- Automatically adjusts to infant’s needs; levels decline as baby gets older
- Rich in cholesterol
- Nearly completely absorbed -Contains fat-digesting enzyme, lipase
- No DHA
- Doesn’t adjust to infant’s needs
- No cholesterol
- Not completely absorbed
- No lipase
Dr. Sears points out that “Fat is the most important nutrient in breastmilk; the absence of cholesterol and DHA, vital nutrients for growing brains and bodies, may predispose a child to adult heart and central nervous system diseases. Leftover, unabsorbed fat accounts for unpleasant smelling stools in formula-fed babies.”
Dr. Sears goes on to compare proteins: “Breast milk, is described as soft, easily-digestible whey, which is more completely absorbed and is higher in the milk of mothers who deliver preterm. Breast milk contains lactoferrin for intestinal health, lysozyme, an antimicrobial, it is rich in brain-and-body- building protein components, rich in growth factors and contains sleep-inducing proteins. In contracts, commercial infant formula contains harder-to-digest casein curds, is not completely absorbed, so there is more waste and it is harder on kidneys. There is no lactoferrin, or only a trace amount. There is no lysozyme. Commercial infant formula is deficient or low in some brain-and body-building proteins, deficient in growth factors and does not contain as many sleep-inducing proteins.”
“Human milk is an incredibly complicated substance,” said Dr. Martha Neuringer, a research associate professor of clinical nutrition at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. “It contains proteins we haven’t even identified yet, much less know the function of.”
Breast milk has a higher carbohydrate content than commercially made formulas and is rich in lactose, a sugar found in lower amounts in cow’s milk.
Not only is breast milk rich in lactose, it also has high amounts of oligosaccharides, both of which promote intestinal health. Conversely there is no lactose in some formulas, and it is deficient in oligosaccharides. Lactose is considered an important carbohydrate for brain development. Research shows that the level of lactose in the milk of a species correlates with the size of the brain of that species.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are better absorbed from breast milk, especially iron, zinc, and calcium. Iron is 50 to 75 percent absorbed. Breast milk contains more selenium, an antioxidant. Synthetic vitamins and minerals in commercially made formulas are not absorbed as well. Iron is only 5 to 10 percent absorbed and it contains less selenium.
As Dr. Sears explains in his article Nutrient by Nutrient Why Breast is Best:
The vitamins and minerals listed on the formula can are no match for those in the milk made by mom, even if milligram by milligram comparisions suggest otherwise. When formula researchers want to know how much of a particular vitamin or mineral babies need each day, they look first at how much of that nutrient is present in human milk and how much milk a baby of a given age takes in a day. But just doing the math doesn’t tell the whole story. More important than the amounts of nutrients in the milk is the amount that is available for the infant to use, a nutrient principle called bioavailability. The bioavailability of a nutrient is influenced by many factors, including its chemical form and the presence of other substances.
The three important minerals calcium, phosphorus, and iron are present in breastmilk at lower levels than in formula, but in breastmilk these minerals are present in forms that have high bioavailability. For example, 50 to 75 percent of the iron in breastmilk is absorbed by the baby. With formula, as little as four percent of the iron is absorbed into baby’s bloodstream. To make up for the low bioavailability of factory-added vitamins and minerals, formula manufactures raise the concentrations. Sounds reasonable, right? If only half gets absorbed by the body, put twice as much into the can. Yet, this nutrient manipulation may have a metabolic price.
Baby’s immature intestines are required to dispose of the excess. Meanwhile, the excess unabsorbed minerals (especially iron) can upset the “ecology of the gut,” interfering with the growth of healthful bacteria and allowing harmful bacteria to flourish. This is another reason formula-fed infants have harder, more unpleasant smelling stools.
To enhance the bioavailability of nutrients, breastmilk contains facilitators – substances that enhance the absorption of other nutrients. For example, vitamin C in human milk increases the absorption of iron. Zinc absorption is also enhanced by other factors in human milk. In an interesting experiment, researchers added equal amounts of iron and zinc to samples of human milk, formula, and cow’d milk, and fed them to adult volunteers. More of the nutrients in the human-milk sample got into the bloodstream compared to the formula and cow’s milk. In essence, breastmilk puts nutrients where they belong – in baby’s blood, not in baby’s bowels.”
As Dr. Joseph Mercola points out: “Newborns are still developing and do not have a mature immune system to protect them from illness. Antibodies, or immune molecules, in a mother’s breast milk are transferred to the baby, giving them immunities to illnesses that the mother is immune to. The converse is also true–if your newborn is exposed to a germ, she will transfer it back to the mother while nursing. The mother’s body will then make antibodies to that particular germ and transfer them back to the baby at the next feeding.” Dr. Sears also highlights that breast milk is full of millions of living white blood cells per feeding. It is rich in immunoglobulins. There are no live white blood cells or any other cells in commercially made infant formula. It is essentially a dead food, and as such, as less immunological benefit.
Breastfeeding, being rich in digestive enzymes such as lipase and amylase, helps ensure that your child’s gut flora develops properly right from the start. Breast milk also has powerful elements that will inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria and yeast. Processing kills digestive enzymes in commercially made infant formula.
Mother’s milk is rich in many hormones: thyroid, prolactin, oxytocin, and more than fifteen others. Processing kills hormones in store-bought infant formula, which are not human to begin with.
Breast milk contains tryptophan, a sleep inducing amino acid, moreso in the evening than at other times. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, which is the hormone that regulates mood as well as sleep cycles. Not only that, it improves brain development and function.
Dr. Stephen Frawley, a professor of cell biology and anatomy at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, said, “It’s a cocktail of potent hormones and growth factors, most of which we’re just beginning to understand.” Read more: Mother’s Milk Found to Be Potent Cocktail Of Hormones
What if I can’t breastfeed?
We recommend unpasteurized donor milk from well-nourished mothers and/or the homemade baby formulas published by The Weston A. Price Foundation. We don’t recommend commercially made infant formulas, organic or otherwise.
As Sylvia Onusic highlights in her article The Scandal of Infant Formula “Infant formula is primarily composed of sugar or lactose, dried skim milk and refined vegetable oil which can include genetically modified components. Organic formula is made of basically the same ingredients but they are not genetically modified. Soy-based formula is made of soy protein, sugar and refined oils. There have been over twenty infant formula recalls since 1980 involving ingredients, pollution with pathogens, adulteration with foreign substances like glass, lack of required nutrients, foul smells, etc. Rocket fuel, phthalates, melamine, and high levels of heavy metals have been found in infant formula. There is no FDA regulation of infant formula; proof of safety is left to the manufacturers.”
What about donor milk?
The concern we have about human milk banks in the United States is that the milk is pasteurized. Pasteurization destroys valuable enzymes, vitamins and probiotics, and this is even a more of a concern for infants. Many of the essential immune-building components will be killed in the pasteurization process and babies will not receive this crucial support when they need it the most.
As Dr. Mercola points out: “Breast milk is meant to be eaten straight from the breast, and there is research showing that pasteurization compromises the nutritional value of breast milk.”
A study in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition found that “Infants fed untreated own mother’s milk grew more rapidly than those fed pasteurized pooled preterm milk and had higher serum alkaline phosphatase and lower phosphorus values.”
A separate study in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition noted:
“A study was done to compare feeding pooled pasteurized breast milk and untreated own mother’s milk to very low birth weight babies. There was a significantly more rapid weight gain both in terms of regaining birth weight and, from this point, to reaching a weight of 1,800 g when using untreated own mother’s milk … It is suggested from our data that slower weight gain in the group receiving the pooled pasteurized milk could be due to the pasteurization, which probably destroys heat-labile milk lipase.”