Jun 23 2015

Human Breast Milk – The New “Superfood”

This is yet another example of why making decisions based upon ideology, or what feels right, instead of logic and evidence is a terrible idea. There is currently a market for adult consumers of human breast milk, which is being sold as a “superfood” that can treat numerous conditions and optimize athletic performance. These claims are, of course, nonsense. The practice is also risky. A new report in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine details the problems.

A market for human breast milk (HBM) exists as a means of providing HBM for infants whose mother cannot produce. A recent survey finds that most HBM exchange happens offline, but facilitated through online sites. There is also a lot of overlap between donors and recipients, with women being donors at one time and recipients at others. This infrastructure exists to provide HBM for infants, and there is good evidence that HBM is the optimal food for infants.

A parallel market is emerging, however, for HBM intended for adult consumers based upon the idea that HBM is a natural superfood. Both of these concepts, however, are problematic. I have discussed many times how the term “natural” is used as a marketing ploy, but has no real meaning and is not rationally regulated. Whether or not a substance occurs in nature is irrelevant to its toxic or health effects, but it is meant to feel good. The idea of “natural” has a health halo, but does not mean anything specific, and is therefore ideal for marketing.

As the recent article details, HBM being sold online is anything but the “clean” food it is claimed to be. Raw HBM, as with any raw milk, runs the risk of contamination with bacteria. They report:

Research into breast milk bought online identified the presence of detectable bacteria in 93% of samples, with Gram-negative bacteria in 74% of samples. Such levels of bacteria can be attributed to the failure to sanitise properly when expressing milk, the failure to sterilise equipment properly, improper or prolonged storage of milk and improper transportation of milk.

In addition, viruses present in the mother can pass through to the breast milk.  HBM therefore has the potential to carry “cytomegalovirus, hepatitis B and C, HIV-1/2, HTLVI&II and syphilis.” Many drugs consumed by the mother can also pass into the milk, including those from tobacco and recreational drug use. Buying HBM from an anonymous source online is therefore a risky proposition, and is unlikely to result in the clean and toxin-free food source that is advertised.

The idea that HBM is a superfood is also nonsense. First, the idea of “superfood” itself is not valid. There is no magical combination of nutrients that make a food into a “superfood” where it will start to have fabulous benefits. Food is just food. It also doesn’t really matter how you get your nutrients, as long as you get enough in reasonable proportions. The best way to accomplish this is to eat a variety of foods and make sure you get enough fruits and vegetables. This includes avoiding an excess of certain kinds of food and an excess of overall calories.

There is no “zone,” however, where proportion of nutrients turns food into anything other than food, that will boost your immune system (which itself is a problematic idea) or shift your metabolism into some sort of optimal state. There is no science behind any of these ideas, but they do sound satisfying to the scientifically illiterate. In short – there is no such thing as a “superfood.”


There is absolutely no reason for an adult to consume HBM, the market for which is created entirely out of false notions and a misunderstanding of basic nutrition and biology. There is, however, a great deal of risk in consuming raw HBM from anonymous donors online.

Hidden risks with false promises – that is the supplement and the alternative medicine industry in a nutshell. Unscientific treatments tend to be poorly regulated, make claims without evidence, and market their products and services with dubious ideas that are emotionally appealing but without scientific backing. This industry attracts cranks and con-artists, so it is no surprise that poor quality control is endemic. HBM is no exception.

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