The letter from Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) appears to be more of a PR stunt rather than a realistic request. However, scientists are already trying to understand more about ‘mother’s milk’, which could have implications for food science, according to a report in the publication Chemical & Engineering News.
PETA points out to ice cream founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield that using breast milk “would lessen the suffering of dairy cows and their babies on factory farms and benefit human health at the same time”.
The move follows a decision by a Swiss restaurant owner to introduce soups, stews and sauces which contain at least 75 per cent breast milk and he is calling for women to become donors.
PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman said: "Everyone knows that 'the breast is best,' so Ben & Jerry's could do consumers and cows a big favor by making the switch to breast milk."
Ashley Byrne, spokeswoman for Peta, admitted that the letter was somewhat tongue-in-cheek but added: “It would certainly be a more healthy and natural choice than using cows milk, considering that a cow’s milk is designed for baby calves that are physically different from us.”
A spokesperson for Ben & Jerry’s told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “We applaud Peta's novel approach to bringing attention to an issue, but we believe a mother's milk is best used for her child.”
The idea of including breast milk in food is likely to be distasteful to consumers. But food scientists look towards breast milk to provide a model for nutrients that the body needs to help with brain development, gut health and nerve function for example.
J Bruce German, a food science professor at the University of California, Davis, told the C&E News: "The one thing that has evolved with humans, to nourish humans, is breast milk.
"It is the ideal evolutionary model for what nourishment should be."
The components of human breast milk include lipids and oligosaccharides, which are prebiotic sugars that stimulate the growth of probiotics, or bacteria found in the gut that are understood to have health benefits.
Consumers are more aware of probiotics, particularly because it is promoted as an ingredient in yoghurt, among other foods. But interest in prebiotics is increasing as evidence suggests they could be even more useful than the probiotic bacteria that they feed.
Meanwhile German says that the lipid or fatty component of food is responsible for much of the beneficial sensory attributes, yet eating too much of some fats is linked to many human chronic diseases.
His team aims to develop the chemical, biochemical and nutritional information needed so that more precise estimates of the benefits and risks of modulating the lipid composition of foods can be developed.
They are also seeking to understand how to improve foods and their abilities to deliver improved health. As part of this the team is looking to discover the physical, functional and nutritional properties of milk components, such as breast milk.
The researchers are looking at milk fat globules which they believe are likely to play significant roles in nutrient absorption and metabolism.
German said that infants tend to accumulate healthy subcutaneous fat, as opposed to the visceral fat that surrounds internal organs that is linked to diabetes and heart disease, “so perhaps something about the way globules deliver fat nutrients contributes to the type of fat that develops in the body”.
This could have important implications for the food industry because cow's milk processing operations such as homogenization breaks down the globules. However, German suggests in the C&E News article that if cow's milk globules were left intact, those who drink it might derive additional nutritional benefits.
It does not follow, however, that components taken from breast milk would be used in food, as ingredients could be developed instead that help imitate breast milk and its benefits.
An example of this is the Israeli company Lipogen which last year launched a new delivery system for its PS ingredient, or phosphatidylserine, which is naturally found in breast milk and is a building block for brain development and nerve function.
Lipogen PS is an all-natural supplement based on soy lecithin which does not affect the taste, texture or color of the final product.