Oligosaccharides (OS) make up the third largest solid component in breast milk, following lactose and lipids, but the precise compounds vary wildly between individuals. Although they have no direct nutritive value to the infant, recent research has pointed to their role in developing intestinal microflora and the mucosal immune system.
In the infant formula market there is a trend towards replicating the nutritional profile of natural human milk as far as possible, to ensure that babies who, for whatever reason, cannot be breast fed, receive the same nutrients as their breast-fed peers.
In particular, omega-3 is now frequently added to formulas; and the first few products with prebiotics have appeared on the market, with more believed to be in development.
According to Agilent, measuring and determining the role of OGs in breast milk has until now been hampered by the molecules' diversity and the limitations of available research tools, which has required long run periods and huge samples.
But two analytical tools developed by Agilent were used in a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (early online edition) to identify the OSs in samples from five women in single runs.
The first technique is its glycan chip - an application specific version of its HPLC chip, used to perform high-resolution separation of complex OS mixtures. The second is a time-of-flight mass spectrometer that can characterize each OS variation by determining its mass at molecular level, to the precision of two parts per million.
By combining the two methods, the researchers were able to show the variations in milk OS compositions. According to lead researcher Professor Carlito Lebrilla of UC Davis, said it "has enabled exciting new results and a more complex understanding of complex oligosaccharide moieties."
The total number of OSs per individual was seen to vary from 33 to 124 - with only a few common to all subjects.
Prof Lebrilla added that it will "undoubtedly have extensions to other glycan structures", and may be applied in areas such as biotherapeutics.
Dr Rudi Grimm, worldwide proteomics and metabolomics market development manager for Agilent, told NutraIngredients.com that the technique could "absolutely" have applications in food and formula.
"Our team's work paves the way for further research into oligosaccharide function in human development," he said.
The techniques are already being used as part of UC Davis' Food for Health initiative, which aims to identify healthy compounds.
Study: Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry Online first, doi: 10.1021/jf0615810 S0021-8561(06)01581-0 "A Strategy for Annotating the Human Milk Glycome" Authors: J. Bruce German, Rudolf Grimm, Carlito Lebrilla et al.