At the beginning of the 20th century, pediatricians discovered that human mothers’ milk contained hitherto unknown complex sugars, now known as human milk oligosaccharides. Scientists were led to the discovery by the significantly lower mortality rate of breastfed children. In the early 1900s, an average of 15–20 children from every 100 born would die within their first year. At that time, the infant mortality rate for non-breastfed children was seven times higher than for breastfed infants.
Even then it was recognized that these specific human milk oligosaccharides were of paramount importance for the health and development of infants. Since then, scientists have identified more than 150 different human milk oligosaccharide structures and have investigated the properties of these sugars. Human milk oligosaccharides are unique in terms of quantity and complexity compared to oligosaccarides from other mammals.
Extensive scientific studies showing diverse positive properties of human milk oligosaccharides have been published, particularly in recent decades. These suggest that the prebiotic properties of human milk oligosaccharides may contribute to the establishment of a protective gut microbiota. In addition, it was shown that these sugars have an antimicrobial effect since they prevent adhesion of pathogens to epithelial cells. Human milk oligosaccharides (in particular sialylated sugars) have been shown to provide the developing brain with the essential nutrient sialic acid and support neuronal functions.
Despite ground-breaking insights into the unique functions of human milk oligosaccharides, these special sugars have not, until recently, been available in large quantities, reflecting their highly complex structure and limited occurrence in Nature. For this reason, it has not been possible in the past to use these unique oligosaccharides as food ingredient.