Is synthetic breastmilk a viable alternative for baby formula?
Efforts to make synthetic breastmilk are underway, with companies such as Biomilq, TurtleTree Labs, and Helaina seeking to create artificial human breastmilk. Why artificially create breastmilk? Is there any benefit? The idea of synthetic breastmilk sounds promising—the ability to give infants the health benefits of breastmilk without the challenges of breastfeeding for many mothers' inconsistent milk production sounds appealing, but synthetic breastmilk can never mimic the antibodies of natural breastmilk nor can it mimic the process of breastfeeding.
Breastmilk contains the exactly right nutrients for infants, even changing over the course that the mother is lactating to meet nutritional needs. It includes antibodies that prevent infants from becoming ill. Breastfeeding also creates a bond between the mother and baby. Synthetic breastmilk may be able to closely replicate nutritional benefits on a basic level, but cannot change over time nor replicate the antibodies or the bond that may be developed through breastfeeding. The World Health Organization recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for at least six months after birth, but according to their 2021 report, only 44% of infants are exclusively breastfed for this long. This has many reasons, one challenge for mothers being low milk supply. Regardless of the reason they are not breastfed, the formula industry is constantly trying to improve to more closely resemble breastmilk. To this end, recent advancements have added human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) that have been found in many mothers’ breastmilk. Perhaps synthetic breastmilk actually produced from human mammary cells would most closely mimic human breastmilk. While it could provide a better alternative, synthetic breastmilk may be more expensive than most formula. According to a 2020 Guardian article, TurtleTree was producing one liter of breastmilk for $35, compared to an average of $8 for most ready-to-drink infant formulas in the US. Biomilq’s co-founder Michelle Egger says the company hopes to sell formula in the same price range as high-end infant formula. Some people worry that synthetic breastmilk would discourage breastfeeding, which these companies acknowledge has more benefits than artificial breastmilk will have. However, these companies claim that their goal is not to replace breastfeeding but rather to provide the next best option.
While synthetic breastmilk could discourage breastfeeding for some mothers, it could serve as a supplement to breastfeeding or replace breastmilk for families who cannot breastfeed. Despite not replicating the nutritional value of natural breastmilk, it would serve as a better alternative to many infant formulas currently on the market, serving as close to a replication as science can currently produce.