Innovations in infant nutrition

It is widely acknowledged that a good start in life forms the basis for growing up healthy. High quality nutrition plays a vital role in healthy development of infants. We interviewed Dianne Delsing Senior Researcher for Nutrition & Health, Global Nutrition Development, FrieslandCampina to learn more about the latest developments on key nutrients which can contribute to a healthy gut, support of the immune system and healthy body weight development

Dianne Delsing


How has the understanding of the first 1000 days developed in the last few years? How has this knowledge been incorporated into R&D for infant nutrition products?
‘In the past years, attention for a healthy start in life has shifted more and more towards the very early prenatal stage of life. Optimal nutrition during pregnancy has been shown to impact the health of infants in early and later life. And as we are taking a closer and closer look at the composition of breast milk, we are further developing our knowledge of the nutritional needs of infants in the earliest phase of their lives. Research is still ongoing to unravel the health benefits of breast milk components (e.g. HMO) and to develop the technology to incorporate them into infant nutrition.’

What are the key nutrients needed at this stage of life? And what is the best way for an infant to get them?
‘Breastfeeding is the best nutrition for an infant. It is tailored to provide the exact nutritional composition at each phase in early life to ensure healthy growth and development. But in cases when breast milk is not or insufficiently available, high quality infant formula is the best alternative. By looking at the composition of breast milk during lactation, we understand the nutritional needs of infants in their first months of life better.’
‘In this early and critical stage of life, infants need:

  • High quality protein to provide building blocks for healthy growth and maintenance of tissues and organs. We know that insufficient protein can lead to malnutrition, but on the other hand, excessive protein intake early in life has been suggested to play a role in obesity development
  • Lactose as energy source
  • Fats with the right fatty acid composition, making sure that they are well digested and absorbed
  • Vitamins and minerals to support all functions of the body
  • In the past decades, we have found that we should not only feed the infant itself, but also the microbiota that are colonizing their gut. Since the gut microbiota has been shown to play a major role in gut maturation & health and immune maturation, it is key to provide the microbiota with oligosaccharides (e.g. GOS, HMO) to feed on
  • Infants receiving breast milk from their mother are better protected from infections than formula fed infants, because they receive a number of protective bioactive proteins via breast milk (e.g. immunoglobulins, lactoferrin). It would be great if we could include these important proteins in infant formula in the future too.’

What about for babies who have allergies to certain key nutrients? How is this likely to affect their development? And what are the solutions for this?
‘Unfortunately, once a baby has developed an allergy against a certain nutrient (e.g. cow’s milk protein), the only effective option is to avoid this nutrient and e.g. change to a formula with hydrolysed protein or soy. Therefore, scientific research is focusing on the prevention of allergy development. There is quite some evidence that nutrition can play a role in prevention of allergy development. There are indications that polyunsaturated fatty acids, pro- and prebiotics in the maternal diet or in infant formula can have a protective effect on allergy development. Also, infant formula containing mildly hydrolysed protein has been shown to reduce the risk of allergy development.’
‘For a long time, the belief that avoidance of allergenic foods (e.g. peanuts, shellfish) early in life would prevent food allergy development, prevailed. However, recent scientific insights have shown that early introduction of such allergens (around 4 months of life) can actually prevent allergies from developing. Incorporating this knowledge into infant nutrition composition is one of the challenges for the future.’

 Last year you talked about the latest developments in Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMO) – how has your research in this area advanced since then?
‘We have invested in the technology to produce HMO (in particular the most abundant HMO: 2’-FL) for application in infant formula. Our research has focused on further understanding the effects of HMO on microbiota composition, immune development and infection risk. This helps us to further develop other HMO for infant nutrition in the future.’

How can mothers help give their children a good start in life? What should they be eating during pregnancy and breastfeeding?
‘To give their infants a good start in life, it is important for mothers to eat a balanced diet. Poor nutrition during pregnancy can result in a low birth weight, with both short- and long-term consequences (e.g. delays in brain development or development of metabolic disease later in life). The most important nutrients to supplement future mothers with are folic acid and vitamin D. It is also recommended to regularly eat oily fish to ensure adequate intake of omega 3 fatty acids, supporting the neurological development of the baby. And since the mother is an important source of the earliest microbiota that start to colonize the infant’s gut, there is more and more evidence that a healthy microbiota of the mother can contribute to a healthy start of life. Therefore, adequate intake of fibers (e.g. oligosaccharides) to stimulate a healthy gut microbiota is receiving more attention lately.’

What are you predictions for the area of infant nutrition in the next 3-5 years?
‘I foresee a number of innovations on infant nutrition coming up in the next few years: providing an optimal protein composition for each life phase; including HMO; and optimizing the lipid structure (e.g. milk fat, MFGM). Furthermore, I expect a lot of attention for “naturalness”: keeping the goodness of milk alive by gentle processing techniques.’

Be sure to catch Diane Delsing’s presentation ‘Key ingredients to a great start in life’, at the Fi Europe 2017 Conference during the Master Class: Life Stages on Wednesday, 29th November 14:30–17:15.