Superman earned his “super” for his ability to outrun a speeding bullet and leap tall buildings in a single bound. Superfoods like açaí berries, kale, and tomatoes earned their “super” for their high concentration of nutrients, particularly those that act as antioxidants. The superlative name is appropriate. Antioxidants possess superhero-like powers that prevent damage to cells and DNA from oxidative stress, thereby reducing the risk of developing certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Controversy in science is good. It invites additional investigation generating new data, and ultimately there is either adequate proof or a lack of substantiation of an idea. The scientific idea then either swims into the future or sinks into oblivion. It is a proven but brutal, survival- of-the-fittest evolutionary process. This is how science works. In the intriguing case of the functions of milk microRNAs, this laborious scientific process is still underway.
Even though human milk is one of the most important substances to the healthy development of people everywhere, its basic composition is still the subject of entirely new discoveries. In a paper published in February this year, researchers from two institutions in Japan—the Institute of Health Sciences at Ezaki Glico Company and the University of Shiga Prefecture—report the presence of glycogen in human milk. Over the years, there have been circumstantial suggestions that human milk may contain this carbohydrate. But this new finding is the first example of strong, confirmatory evidence of glycogen’s presence.
“Paper or plastic?” This simple question, asked daily at grocery stores and markets around the world, has become increasingly complex over the past couple of decades. The choice between all-natural, biodegradable fibers and synthetic, single-use films has political and environmental consequences ranging from deforestation to endangered sea turtles. But a recent innovation in the development of food packaging may signal a new option altogether. Instead of recycling or wasting your bag, what if you could eat it?
Lactation biologists have long known that human milk synthesis varies across and within mothers. In the search for sources of this variation, the spotlight has been primarily directed at maternal factors. But it takes two to nurse, and human infants are not simply passive consumers of milk. Infant characteristics, from low birth weight to illness, are known to affect milk synthesis, primarily through an increase in the very ingredients needed to improve infant health, growth, or cognitive development. Human milk appears to be tailored to specific infant needs—one milk does not fit all.
Mothers transmit more than genes to their offspring. Some intergenerational maternal influences can impact newborns through their ingestion of milk, which can enhance their chances of optimal growth and survival. Currently, the accepted opinion is that most of these maternal influences do not persist beyond weaning. However, there are scattered and tantalizing pieces of evidence suggesting there may be some exceptions to acceptance of that opinion.
Diet plays a major role in influencing cardiovascular health. For instance, increased dairy consumption is associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and lower blood pressure. On the other hand, an increase in dietary sodium—consumed primarily as salt—is associated with increased blood pressure and higher cardiovascular morbidity and mortality.
Ask an average citizen how much fatty food they eat, and the response is likely to be a sugar-coated version of the truth. Many studies that search for links between dietary habits and complex diseases face this problem. But what if there were particular molecules that hang around in blood, which could be used to diagnose how much of a relevant foodstuff an individual typically consumes? It would mean that the disease risks attached to eating the food could be stated with greater certainty. This is exactly what Mohammad Yakoob of Harvard Medical School and his colleagues have identified in three fatty acid constituents of dairy products. Analyzing measurements of levels of these fatty acids in the blood of thousands of people enrolled in prospective studies has led these researchers to conclude that dairy fats reduce the risk of diabetes.
In the first hours and days after a human baby is born, mothers aren’t producing the white biofluid that typically comes to mind when we think about milk. They synthesize a yellowish milk known as colostrum or “pre-milk.” Colostrum is the first substance human infants are adapted to consume, and despite being low in fat, colostrum plays many roles in the developing neonate. Historically and cross-culturally, colostrum was viewed very differently than it is amongst industrialized populations today.