"From conception to two years you can really set the stage for long-term health in children," Dr Valentine told FoodNavigator-USA.
Multiple studies including the last two Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS) reports and a paper by the Academy of Pediatrics titled "The First 1,000 Days of Life" published last year have identified just how critical the transition from infant breastfeeding into early childhood is, when nutritional gaps in a child's diet widen. Before turning 2-years-old, many children aren't consuming enough iron, which is essential for healthy brain development.
"Knowing those gaps and knowing that very vulnerable time period, we looked at what is happening to the brain in that time period. The reason these kids are at such risk is that the brain grows to about 85-95% of an adult brain by two years," Dr Valentine said.
According to Dr Valentine, brain health and development hasn't been given as much as attention as a child's physical growth with a slew of products aimed at promoting children's height and bones.
"There are some features that people don’t think about because you can’t see it on the inside like you can see a kid growing tall. Your brain not only has to grow in structure as well but has to grow and have the wrappings of the neurons grow with myelin (the wrapping the protect fibers in the brain)," she noted.
The MFGM is a naturally occurring bioactive membrane that surrounds the fat droplets in breast milk and plays an important role in childhood brain development, according to Dr Valentine.
Developing brain nourishing products for young kids
While it's not realistic to incorporate breast milk into a child's diet past the typical breastfeeding window and many moms are in need of nutritional bridge as soon as three months after giving birth, there is an opportunity to supplement a child's diet with some of the key nutrients found in breast milk, explained Dr Valentine.
Dr Valentine, who is also the medical director for Reckitt Benckiser (parent company to Enfagrow), and a team of R&D scientists turned to examining mother's breast milk for inspiration on how to build a nutritious product that could effectively supplement a child's diet past infancy.
Late last month, the company launched Enfagrow Neuropro, a nutritional drink for toddler 1-year and older containing cow's milk MFGM and 14 grams of sugar per 8-fluid-ounce serving.
"We developed this new product with all that in mind, with all those key nutrients from a natural milk source and we also added the novel ingredient MFGM (from cow's milk) that every drop of mother’s breast milk has and get the concentration similar to what a breastfeeding baby would have," she said.
The MFGM is composed of many of those key proteins and fats including Omega-3 DHA as well as vitamin A and prebiotics to promote brain development and a healthy immune system in a child's first few years of life. According to Dr Valentine, when looking at the MFGM under a 3D microscopic technology, once it's separated from the whey protein in cow's milk, the structure and nutritional components are "almost identical" to human breast milk.
When asked if a healthy and finely tuned diet of the right mix of foods could foster healthy brain development in young children, Dr Valentine clarified that would be the gold standard but is often unattainable for many parents.
"As a pediatrician and nutritionist, I would love food sources first, but many children are not eating those food sources and if they are eating those food sources, they’re not eating enough," she said.
The MFGM is a promising and concrete step towards healthy brain development in young children, Dr Valentine added.
"I really believe this is the next best ingredient since DHA and will be in all nutritional supplements [for young children] at some point."
What are the crucial nutritional gaps that need to be addressed once a child exits infancy? Find out FoodNavigator-USA's FOOD FOR KIDS summit taking place in Chicago this Nov. 18-20. REGISTER HERE!