Despite declining birth and fertility rates,1 the global market for baby food and infant formula is on the rise; with a projected increase to $31 billion by 2020,2 worldwide spending on baby food products will soon exceed the total annual budget for NIH research grants!   Much of this industry growth can be attributed to increasing demand for advanced nutrition, including supplements that improve brain and immune system development.  Inspiration for these new ingredients comes from no other source than the original infant formula, one that nature’s had several hundred million years to perfect… breast milk.


If newborns are fed 8-12x per day, how many diapers are used every day???

Besides having nutritional content that’s evolutionarily tailored to fit a baby’s needs, human milk also contains thousands of different non-nutritive, bioactive molecules that contribute towards organ development, immune maturation, and even a healthy gut microbiome.3  In recent years, one particular protein has gained popularity as an anti-bacterial / anti-viral /anti-fungal /anti-cancer / pro-baby miracle molecule—lactoferrin.

In the last few months, Lactoferrin’s popularity on BioGPS has spiked dramatically, coinciding with a flurry of research publications—and a market report on the highly lucrative baby food  industry. #babytrends #organicbaby #glutenfree #BPAfreeisthewaytobe #aworriedparentisagoodparent #300DollarDiaperBags

Although found in other bodily fluids like tears and saliva, lactoferrin is most highly concentrated in milk, and even more specifically, in the colostrum that’s produced during pregnancy and immediately after giving birth.4  Thus, a baby’s first meal includes lactoferrin, which is critical for the developing gut and immune system. First, as an iron-binding glycoprotein, lactoferrin not only assists in iron homeostasis (much like another #GeneOTW alumnus, HFE), but also establishes a healthy intestinal microbiome via several methods:5

1)   By binding up free iron, lactoferrin makes it difficult for bacteria to survive without access to this essential nutrient.  (Lactoferrin and its metabolic byproducts can also directly interact with bacterial plasma membranes to induce cell death.)

2)   Certain “good” bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium actually prefer this low-iron environment.

When coupled with its role in activating and modulating immune cells, lactoferrin’s strong anti-microbial and immune-promoting functions make it a natural choice to test as a therapeutic treatment.  In fact, you can already purchase lactoferrin-supplemented infant formula in Japan!  However, research is still ongoing; one recent publication tested whether supplemental lactoferrin (often in addition to breastfeeding) could improve survival of preterm infants.  Preemies are typically more susceptible to necrotizing enterocolitis, a severe, potentially fatal condition that results in necrosis of the intestines.  This new study looked at very-low-birth-weight infants (the tiniest of which weighed <1 lb!), and demonstrated that lactoferrin treatment decreases incidence of necrotizing enterocolitis.6

And if that weren’t enough, preliminary studies across a range of ailments suggest that lactoferrin may also help with

  • Promotion of bone growth7
  • Eradication of (ulcer-causing) H. pylori infections8
  • Protection from radiation damage910
  • Prevention of colon cancer11
  • and even, treatment of psoriasis!12

Given all these new developments, it is no surprise that lactoferrin is involved in so many ongoing clinical trials. Still, the data remain preliminary enough that you don’t have to run to the store and buy every carton of milk.  But in the meantime, it certainly can’t hurt to treat yourself to a glass of milk and a chocolate chip cookie…  after all, it’s for your health.


Giraffes need lactoferrin too.




  1. Martin et al. Births: Final Data for 2012. (2013, December 30) National Vital Statistics Reports 62(9). Retrieved from the May 16, 2014, from []
  2. Nutrition Trends and Affluent Parents Drive the Global Baby Foods and Infant Formula Market, According to New Report by Global Industry Analysts, Inc. (2014, May 8). PRWeb. Retrieved May 14, 2014, from []
  3. Ballard O, Morrow AL. (2013) Human milk composition: nutrients and bioactive factors. Pediatr Clin North Am 60(1):49-74. []
  4. Farnaud S and Evan RW. (2003) Lactoferrin—a multifunctional protein with antimicrobial properties. Molecular Immunology 40: 395–405. []
  5. Aly E, Ros G, Frontela C. (2013) Structure and Functions of Lactoferrin as Ingredient in Infant Formulas. J Food Res 2(4):25-36. []
  6. Manzoni et al. (2014) Bovine lactoferrin supplementation for prevention of necrotizing enterocolitis in very-low-birth-weight neonates: a randomized clinical trial.  Early Hum Dev 90 Suppl 1:S60-5. []
  7. Aly E, Ros G, Frontela C. (2013) Structure and Functions of Lactoferrin as Ingredient in Infant Formulas. J Food Res 2(4):25-36. []
  8. Sachdeva A, Rawat S, Nagpal J. (2014) Efficacy of fermented milk and whey proteins in Helicobacter pylori eradication: a review. World J Gastroenterol 20(3):724-37. []
  9. Nishimura Y, Homma-Takeda S, Kim HS, Kakuta I. (2014) Radioprotection of mice by lactoferrin against irradiation with sublethal X-rays. J Radiat Res 55(2):277-82. []
  10. Murata M, Satoh T, Wakabayashi H, Yamauchi K, Abe F, Nomura Y. (2014) Oral administration of bovine lactoferrin attenuates ultraviolet B-induced skin photodamage in hairless mice. J Dairy Sci 97(2):651-8. []
  11. Tsuda H, Kozu T, Iinuma G, Ohashi Y, Saito Y, Saito D, Akasu T, Alexander DB, Futakuchi M, Fukamachi K, Xu J, Kakizoe T, Iigo M. (2010) Cancer prevention by bovine lactoferrin: from animal studies to human trial. Biometals 23(3):399-409. []
  12. Saraceno R, Gramiccia T, Chimenti S, Valenti P, Pietropaoli M, Bianchi L. (2014) Topical lactoferrin can improve stable psoriatic plaque. G Ital Dermatol Venereol 149(3):335-40. []