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Maternal diets affect milk oligosaccharides and microbiome

A 2-3 day alteration in diet can alter milk HMO composition.

The types of carbohydrate and fat a breastfeeding woman consumes shape the oliogosaccharides present in her milk, finds a recent study in Scientific Reports. The study also showed that the oligosaccharides alter microbial metabolism in the mother’s milk and can promote growth of Streptococcus bacteria. The study authors say their findings have implications for long term infant and maternal health.

Oligosaccharides in human milk (HMOs) have been extensively studied. They are the third most abundant component of human milk but are indigestible for the child. They act as a prebiotic, selectively stimulating growth of beneficial bacteria in the infant gut and they may also modulate infant immunity. Infant formula brands are beginning to include selected HMOs in their formula to better mimic human milk. For a review see Chambers and Townsend 2020 and Davis et al. 2020 .

There is little research on effects of maternal diet on human milk oligosaccharides. A study this year by Quin et. al. demonstrated that consumption of fruit affected abundance of HMOs.

This study compared breastfeeding women on several diets, each woman acting as their own control in a cross-over study design. A group of 5 women was given glucose as their sole carbohydrate source and then galactose as sole carbohydrate for 30 to 57 hours each with a period between where the women ate their normal diet. The other group of 6 women consumed a carbohydrate rich diet followed by a fat rich diet for 8 days each with a similar intervening period of their ‘normal diet’. The researchers examined the profiles of oligosaccharides in their milk at each stage of the study.

The milk from all the women had many HMO species, 70% were fucosylated or sialylated. The glucose/galactose group had significantly lower total amounts of HMO bound fucose in their milk when on the glucose diet. For the high carbohydrate/high fat group the total amount of HMO bound sialic acid was higher on a high fat diet. The findings were not significant for individual HMOs.

The researchers then analysed the microbiome of the women’s milk. The diet changes didn’t affect the range of bacteria present in the milk but it did affect the metabolism of the bacteria. They showed the amino acids produced by the bacteria change in response to the women’s diet. The amount of fucosidase produced by the milk bacteria also increased when fucosylated HMO levels in milk increased. The streptococci in the milk drove this change.

The researchers conclude they have demonstrated that a change in diet lasting just a few days could alter HMO composition of human milk and therefore the milk microbiome and the microbiome of the breast feeding infant. The proliferation of Streptococcus in response to fucosylated HMOs may benefit the mother, protecting her from Staphylococcus infections.


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Seferovic, M.D., Mohammad, M., Pace, R.M. et al. Maternal diet alters human milk oligosaccharide composition with implications for the milk metagenome. Scientific Reports 10, 22092 (2020).


Article details

  • Author(s)
  • I. Hoskins
  • Date
  • 21 December 2020
  • Source
  • Scientific Reports
  • Subject(s)
  • Nutrition physiology