The ability to digest lactose is essential for very young humans, for whom the sugar provides approximately one-third of their daily calories. But upon weaning and growing up, to varying extents, human bodies become less proficient at this task. For many people, the change is so evident that they are diagnosed as lactose intolerant, and, as a result, cut dairy completely out of their diets in an effort to avert unpleasant symptoms. Yet the medical consensus advises against this. Several strategies to manage the symptoms of lactose intolerance and malabsorption are instead proposed: careful dietary management, supplementing the missing lactase enzyme, and, most recently, consuming pre-biotics.
This is the million-dollar question when it comes to feeding those infants that are born the most vulnerable. Preterm infants are entirely dependent for their survival on the level of medical care offered to them. Amongst the important decisions to be made by health professionals as to how a baby born preterm will survive is how and what this baby will be fed. Currently, the standard practice in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is to feed preterm babies frozen mother’s own milk, pasteurized donor milk and/or formula, depending on what is available. However, a ground-breaking study by Sun and colleagues has now challenged this well-accepted but poorly researched dogma, showing that fresh mother’s own milk (non-refrigerated, non-frozen, completely unprocessed) is the most beneficial for the preterm baby, just as it is for the term baby.
Drinking warm milk at bedtime to help you fall asleep might be a myth, but dairy foods playing a role in improving sleep could be a reality. The warm milk myth likely came from the finding that cow milk contains tryptophan, the same amino acid thought to make people sleepy after eating Thanksgiving Day turkey. Foods with tryptophan have not shown the same sleep-inducing effects as pure tryptophan. But milk has many other ingredients that could potentially influence the symptoms of sleep apnea, a sleep disorder where breathing stops and starts numerous times during sleep due to relaxed throat muscles.
Paradoxes are uncomfortable. They remind us of how little we understand. Worse, it sometimes seems the more we know, the less we understand, and that’s a bitter-sweet paradox in itself. Nowhere are paradoxes more apparent than in our understanding of life, and in particular the scientific understanding of the encyclopedia of life—the genome present in every living cell. Many scientists conclude that without understanding these genomic paradoxes, humans cannot fully exploit the amazing potential of genetics to improve human health and enhance the efficiencies of livestock production systems. The latter occurs primarily through DNA marker-assisted selective breeding of livestock. This process exploits the genetic (DNA) variations present in a large population of a livestock species to help select for the high-performing animals that then go into breeding programs. The aim is to improve animal productivity in each generation. It’s a little like how a savings account grows with each year of interest.
A cow, a milkmaid, and a chemist walk into a bar… or a laboratory? Not quite the typical start to a joke, but this is how a 1950s brochure described a then-popular—and somewhat revolutionary—milk fiber textile called Aralac. Between World Wars I and II, wool was scarce and this milk fiber-blended fabric was becoming a go-to substitute for shirts, ties, and other accessories and clothing in the U.S. and Europe. For a moment in time, it seemed that the future of fabrics was milk-based. So why are we not wearing—and maybe not even aware of the existence of—milk fiber clothing now? The answer lies where economics and science intersected in the mid-twentieth century. But like so many things, it seems that history is bringing us full-circle, and the interest in milk fibers has been rekindled in recent years.
Human milk may be a complex biological fluid, but many of the ingredients that make it so complex are influenced by culture. Milk fatty acids reflect the fat content of the mother’s diet, and milk microbes have been linked to the mother’s diet, antibiotic use, and psychological stress. Now, a new study reports that a mother’s subsistence strategy—that is, the way that mother’s community makes a living—affects the quantity of immune proteins in her milk. Whereas maternal antibiotic use is a novel cultural influence on milk composition, subsistence strategies have influenced the maternal pathogen experience, and likely shaped milk immune factors, throughout human evolutionary history.
It seems that more and more frequently, the news reports on outbreaks of pathogens like Escherichia coli, which can result in food poisoning. The common approach to treatment is antibiotic therapy, but sometimes this treatment is not effective, or the bacteria are resistant to the antibiotic. Scientists are working hard to find ways to control bacteria without antibiotics. A study by Douëllu et al. has shown how a component of milk—milk fat globules (MFG)—may counter effects of E. coli.
These days, the health-giving properties of human milk oligosaccharides, or HMOs, are much appreciated. The medium-length sugars, which are the most common component of human milk after water, lactose and lipids, are not metabolized by infants. Instead, they have diverse non-nutritive roles, such as protecting infants against invading microbes, and encouraging the proper development of the growing gut. It is well established that different women secrete different collections of HMOs in their milk, and until very recently, genetics was understood to hold complete sway over this, dictating the various types and relative amounts of the various HMOs that a woman produces. In a recent issue of JAMA Pediatrics, however, Antti E. Seppo of the University of Rochester Medical Center, in New York, and his colleagues, report that women who consumed probiotics have altered blends of HMOs in their milk.
If you want to understand how an infant’s diet influences its health, you might ask, “What did the infant eat?” But the results of a new study on infant diet and weight gain suggest that this simple question is no longer sufficient; in addition to asking what, we need to be asking how, and for how long. Newly published results from over 2,500 mother-infant pairs demonstrate that the longer a mother is able to directly provide breast milk, the more closely the infant’s rate of weight gain over the first 12 months of life matches the World Health Organization’s (WHO) standards. Considering the prevalence of pumping among many breastfeeding mothers, these novel findings shouldn’t be reported without consideration of the many positive outcomes associated with feeding expressed breast milk.
People have been migrating since the dawn of human existence. It’s in our nature to survive and that drove generations of ancient humans to walk to nearly all corners of the world. The history of human migration is inscribed in detail within the DNA code of modern-day people. It is a fantastic book to read, full of drama and intrigue. One chapter contains descriptions of an ancient population migration into Europe that resulted in major cultural changes. Scientists recently concluded that the Eurasian steppe was the ancient cradle for today’s European populations and it was also one of the primary origins of dairy pastoralism. How and why ancient Eurasian populations migrated into Europe are being revealed by scientists using new technologies that trace massive ancient population migrations, changes in diets, and the movement of dairy pastoralism beginning about 4,500 years ago. The scientists along the way have answered one of the most debated questions of history. How did new ideas, especially knowledge of dairying, spread in ancient populations? Was it due to population migration and then replacement of indigenous populations or the adoption of new ideas taken from neighbors? The answer is both, but in different places.