We all know that breast milk is best for baby. But now there's damning evidence that formula can be harmful, particularly for premature infants. According to an article in Science Daily, a new study from the University of California has revealed that fatty acids involved in the digestion of formula can cause necrotizing enterocolitis (NE)—a severe, often fatal intestinal condition.
Having tested nine different infant formulas, the researchers published their findings online in the journal Pediatric Research. Although scientists have known before now that formula-fed premature babies are particularly susceptible to NE, they never understood the underlying reason.
While a mature or adult intestine is able to withstand cell damage due to free fatty acids, that of a preterm baby isn't. When researchers respectively tested infant formula and breast milk against digestive enzymes in vitro, the formula digestion led to cellular death or or cytotoxicity "in less than 5 minutes in some cases."
Breast milk was thought to have built-in mechanism to ward against cytotoxicity because it is digested at a slower, more controlled rate. While digestion of formula caused "death in 47 percent to 99 percent of neutrophils while only 6 percent of them died as a result of milk digestion."
The study is a revelation for neonatal intensive care units and for full-term babies at risk for gastrointestinal and sensitivities, such as autism spectrum disorders. Breastfeeding premature babies can be challenging, if not impossible in many cases.
Clearly either a better infant formula must be manufactured, or hospitals need in-house breast milk banks if babies, particularly those born preterm, are to get the best possible start they deserve.