July 22, 2024
Posted by Scott Elliott, ARS Office of Communications in

Research and Science

Aug 15, 2023

A close-up photo of a woman snuggling a baby

August is National Breastfeeding Month. Did you know that USDA conducts research to define dietary needs to ensure optimal maternal and child health? A researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is heading international studies to establish nutritional guidelines for vitamins and minerals in human milk.

“Breastfeeding is the best way to keep babies healthy and developing well,” said Lindsay Allen, research scientist at the ARS Obesity and Metabolism Research Unit in Davis, California.

“If the mother eats a poor-quality diet, her milk will contain lower levels of most vitamins and many minerals. The question is how to define [those] values,” Allen said. “We are determining this by measuring the micronutrients in milk and blood samples from 1,000 mother-infant pairs across the first 9 months of lactation in four countries.”

The study examines the breast milk of well-nourished groups of women in Brazil, Bangladesh, Denmark, and The Gambia. Women in the United States are not part of the study because many take supplements during pregnancy and lactation, which could increase the nutrients in milk to higher-than-normal levels.

The Mothers, Infants, and Lactation Quality (MILQ) project also focused on the amount of iodine in breast milk. Iodine is a mineral that the body uses to make thyroid hormones. These hormones regulate metabolism and ensure proper bone and brain development during pregnancy and infancy.

The second study (MILQ2) measures the vitamins, minerals and milk volume several times from delivery through the first month postpartum. This is a critical period because the infant’s nutrient requirements are high and many micronutrients in milk are more rapidly absorbed by the infant.

“The objective is to produce reference curves so we can judge whether the levels of nutrients in milk are average, or fall below or above that,” Allen said. “[This] will help to calculate the nutrient requirements of infants and their mothers, and interpret how effective maternal supplements are for improving the amount of nutrients in milk.”

These USDA studies are just two of the many that focus on maternal and childhood health. USDA ARS conducts this nutrition research and more through six human nutrition research centers and other labs located across the country.

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