Yes, Human Breast Milk Could Be the Next Big Superfood—Here’s Why

Updated: Mar. 04, 2021

We're all in favor of breastfeeding—for babies. Now a food tech start-up is betting on it being good for adults too.

milkHave a nice day Photo/shutterstockWith sugar increasingly considered highly addictive (seriously, this is how to crack that sugar addiction) and more and more research suggesting that it feeds diseases, it seems pretty obvious that we should cut it out of our diets as much as possible. But one type of sugar can actually improve health, specifically gut health.

And a new biotech company called Sugarlogix is betting on it. The company, a food tech startup founded by PhDs Kulika Chomvong and Chaeyoung Shin, as well as professors Yong-Su Jin and Jamie Cate, is manufacturing a type of sugar currently only present in human breast milk. Their hope, according to Fast Company, is to market the product as a way to promote healthier digestion and a healthier gut, which in turn, boost the immune system and even mental health.

The sugars, called human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), essentially function as food for probiotics, those good bacteria naturally occuring in our small intestine. Even as it makes this food, called prebiotics, human milk sugars may, more specifically, help build up stores of bifidobacterium in the gut, strain of good bacteria that has been shown to play a role in diabetes and other diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome when it’s in short supply.

“When you consume probiotics, what you’re consuming is the good gut bacteria themselves,” Dr. Shin told Fast Company. “You’re consuming the living organisms. However, since they are living organisms, they need the right kind of food source, and the right kind of food source for them is prebiotics. We believe that you need both—the good gut bacteria and the food source—in order for them to thrive and to make a healthy gut microbiome.”

While there are about 130 different kinds of these milk sugars present in human breast milk, Sugarlogix is focusing on manufacturing just one type, for now: 2′-fucosyllactose. This particular sugar has proven effective in boosting immune response in babies when used as an ingredient in formula.

The California-based company plans to release 2′-fucosyllactose to produce healthier infant formula for babies who can’t breastfeed. They’ll then work to potentially improve health in adults as well, finding a way to use it as a sugar replacement in gut-friendly foods such as yogurt and kombucha.

The manufacturing process, like making beer, involves yeast fermentation. “We start out with bakery yeast [and] make genetic changes so that it produces HMOs–this is the technology that separates us from our competitors,” says Shin. “In other words, currently we are the only ones who know how to produce HMOs with yeast.”

But before you start preparing for what may yet be the best alternative to sugar since Stevia, it’s important to remember that this isn’t sugar as we know it. In fact, rather than sweetening foods and serving as a source of caloric energy, human milk sugars cannot be digested, and are not sweet. Instead, they serve solely to feed beneficial bacteria living in our gut.

So as to whether you’ll be seeing breast milk sugar on shelves at your local grocery store, the answer is not soon. The startup, a part of the current class at IndieBio, a San Francisco-based accelerator for biotech companies, is in the midst of raising an initial round of investment, but keep an eye out in the future for the human by-product to hit the shelves. The only remaining question: Would you buy it?