Just when you thought breast milk couldn't get any more amazing, along comes this fascinating new research on the sensory active compounds in preterm human milk.

As you know, breast milk has a very distinctive smell and taste.

Previous research had shown that some of the volatile components of breast milk could influence the learning of flavours through "the cephalic phase response, metabolism, and digestion".

But what about breast milk produced by mothers for preterm babies?

The study

Muelbert M et al. (2021) analysed breast milk samples collected from 170 mothers of preterm infants.

40 volatile compounds were detected in the milk: “mostly fatty acids and their esters (FA and FAe), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), aldehydes, terpenoids, alcohols, and ketones.”

The scientists detected something interesting with the relative concentration of two compounds (FA and FAe):

The relative concentration of FA and FAe:

  • Increased with advancing lactation – meaning the longer period of time someone breastfeeds.
  • Were lower in the breast milk collected in most socially deprived mothers
  • Were also lower in the breast milk collected in those with gestational diabetes

What does this mean?

The scientists found the sensory-active volatile compounds (FA and FAe) are the major contributors to the smell of preterm breast milk.

The sensory-active volatile compounds (FA and FAe) are influenced by the lactation stage and maternal characteristics.

In preterm breast milk, these FAs increased with advanced lactation – meaning the longer period of time someone breastfeeds.

And this was really interesting (at least to me): “Colostrum had a higher concentration of medium-chain FAs compared to transitional BM and the concentration of these is associated with socioeconomic status, gestational diabetes, and ethnicity.”

So the colustrum of babies had a higher concentration of these sensory active compounds – but the concentration was linked to socioeconomic status, diabetes and ethnicity.


More research is needed to find out whether differences in these volatile compounds may affect infant feeding behaviour and metabolism.


Science reference:

Muelbert M, Galante L, Alexander T, Harding JE, Pook C, Bloomfield FH. Odor-active volatile compounds in preterm breastmilk. Pediatr Res. 2021 May 7. doi: 10.1038/s41390-021-01556-w. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33963300.



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