Making Infant Formula More Like Mother’s Milk

Making Infant Formula Healthier

Iesha Scott Grant, 40, is typical of many modern mothers in that she breastfed and formula-fed her baby, Danielle, who is now two-and-a-half years old. She did this to provide nutrition to support growth and development of her baby.

Indeed, for much of the history of infant formula, scientists, doctors, nutritionists and infant formula manufacturers have been trying to improve its nutritional and health value to make formula more like the real thing.

“The outcome is to mimic mother’s milk as much as possible,” says Patricia Crawford, the senior director of research at the Nutrition Policy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.1

The latest breakthrough involves the potential production and use of HMOs (human milk oligosaccharides) that help babies develop their immune systems. Yet, arguably formula milk remains a work in progress. “Breast milk has things that formula can’t provide,” says Linda Franck, a professor at the Department of Family Health Care Nursing at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco.2

The Infant Formula Journey Continues

Indeed, formula has come a long way from its origins in 1867 when Justus von Liebig, the German chemist credited with founding the science of organic chemistry, developed the world's first commercial infant formula, Liebig's Soluble Food for Babies. Von Liebig’s formula was a simple concoction by today’s standards. It contained only wheat flour, cow's milk, malt flour and potassium bicarbonate.

There have been countless improvements in the composition of formula over the intervening 150 years. Until now, most of the additions focused on implementing the right type and amounts of minerals, vitamins, nucleotides and proteins that human infants need to grow into healthy young children. Two major milestones included the addition of protein, first added to most formulas in 1935, and taurine, an amino acid thought to help with neurological development and found in breast milk, which was added in 1984.3

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the ingredients and manufacturing of infant formula. The agency sets minimum percentage requirements for some 29 nutrients that must be present in infant formula and maximum amounts for nine other ingredients.4

Infant formulas became far more sophisticated in the 1990s and beyond. Makers added polyunsaturated fatty acids and nucleotides, which may enhance the immune system. Two of these, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA), were added because they have been demonstrated to promote brain development in babies.5

An Area of Great Promise

One of the greatest areas of promise for future infant formula involves the addition of selected HMOs. HMOs have been identified as components of human milk that do three things. They help shape an infant’s intestinal microbiome. They act as an efficient anti-infection agent. And they promote the development of a balanced immune system for the baby.6

DuPont Nutrition & Health is collaborating with Inbiose, a Ghent University spin-off company, to develop and produce HMOs on an industrial scale. “Infant nutrition has come a long way,” says Wim Soetaert, Inbiose co-founder and executive chairman.7

HMOs are complex carbohydrates unique to and found in human milk — up to 10 percent of human milk’s dry matter. More than 100 different HMO compounds have been described. One in particular that Inbiose and DuPont are focusing on is 2’fucosyllactose (2’FL), a prebiotic, which stimulates the development of the right kind of healthy bacteria in an infant’s intestinal tract, has been shown to have anti-microbial properties to combat infectious diseases and also promotes immune health.

“The desire to add these molecules to infant formula has been there for a long time,” Soetaert says. Given the importance of HMOs for the health and well-being of babies, it’s the next logical step after the addition of vitamins, minerals and proteins, which are the prior advances for formula milk composition. The new technology allows manufacturers to produce large quantities of these HMOs, taking infant formula one step closer to human milk in terms of its composition.

Alternatives for the Gold Standard

“Breast milk is still, of course, the gold standard,” Soetaert says. “But for all sorts of reasons, we also need infant formula as an alternative for breast milk.”8

There are some mothers who simply can’t breastfeed or suffer from conditions where breast milk transmits disease. Sometimes a baby is not able to feed on the breast or, as with Iesha Scott Grant and her daughter, a baby may need the additional nutrition formula’s may provide. And while there are many people, organizations and government agencies that are trying to make it easier for moms to breastfeed, some mothers don’t because of societal or financial pressures that make it difficult to nurse an infant in a workplace or other location.9

An early 21st century research study published in The Journal of Nutrition estimated that the majority of mothers in the U.S. fed cow milk to their infants from the 1930s through the 1960s. Infant formula began to be commonly used (along with fortified baby food) after that time. Then in the last decades of the twentieth century, a back-to-mother’s milk movement swept the U.S. and other developed countries.10

That still didn’t help those mothers who couldn’t or wouldn’t breastfeed. Hence, the focus on adding more ingredients such as HMOs to infant formula to bring it closer to mother’s milk.

“DuPont Nutrition & Health, as the leading manufacturer for food ingredients, has research and development experience to advance this key innovation in the area of infant nutrition” says Martin Kullen, PhD, Global R&D leader for Probiotics, Cultures, Food Protection and HMOs.

Ratna Mukherjea, PhD, Technology & Innovation leader for HMO at DuPont Nutrition & Health adds, “We have worked successfully with infant formula manufacturers to introduce protein and fiber into infant formulas and are well poised for this next endeavor with HMOs to make infant formula closer to mother’s milk.”

There are other important additives still to be commercialized. According to University of California, Davis professor and food chemist Bruce German, these include other HMOs, enzymes that help babies digest proteins, and whole lipids, which help cells divide. “These would be great to see,” German says.11

Inbiose’s Soetaert agrees and is already considering how to add other types of HMOs to formula milk. “People want the very best for their child,” he says. “They are not willing to compromise on the health and well-being of their children.”

“DuPont Nutrition & Health aims to become the leading supplier of HMO to the Infant nutrition market and beyond”, says Steen Lyck, Global Business Development Leader. “We have a unique position in pre- and probiotics and plan to leverage synergies with multiple HMO and probiotics. 2’FL is the starting point in creating a platform of product, application and health claim opportunities, aligned with the innovation goals of our customers and meeting the needs and expectations of the end consumer.”



1 Patricia Crawford, Adjunct Professor and Senior Director, Nutrition Policy Institute, University of California, Berkeley,

2 Linda Franck, Professor at the Department of Family Health Care Nursing at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco and the Co-Principal Investigator of the UCSF Preterm Birth Initiative,

3 “Infant Formula,” Wikipedia,

4 “Infant Nutrition,”,

“Infant Formula,” Wikipedia,

6 Wim Soetaert, Co-founder and executive chairman, Inbiose,

7 “DuPont Nutrition & Health and Inbiose Partner to Bring Novel Infant Nutrition Ingredients to Market,” PRWeb. November 3, 2016,

8 Wim Soetaert, Co-founder and executive chairman, Inbiose,

9 Summary of Interview with David Murphey, Research Fellow and Director of the DataBank at Child Trends,

10 Samuel J. Fomon. “Infant Feeding in the 20th Century: Formula and Beikost,” The Journal of Nutrition, 2001,

11 Bruce German, Professor, Dept. of Food Science and Technology, Director of the Foods for Health Institute, University of California,