Synthetic HMOs-close but not the real thing

March 20, 2020- Synthetic human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) are being added to formula and driving up prices? But are they effective and worth the extra price?

HMOs are a chemically complex type of sugar which make up about 1/3 of the compounds in breastmilk. They feed and support healthy gut bacteria, block infectious bacteria, and support the infant’s immune system. Since the 1950s, up to 200 structurally different HMOs have been identified in human milk. Each mother has a unique blend of these HMOs. Formula manufacturers have started to add ONE HMO called 2’-fucosyllactose or 2’-FL to their infant formula product line, claiming this prebiotic will support the infant’s immune system as well as reduce infant fussiness, gassiness, and crying after just one day of use! The problem is that this particular HMO is NOT derived from human milk, but manufactured from non-pathologic E. coli bacteria! These are structurally different from human derived HMOs and do not appear to be functionally equivalent. There is little to no evidence (independent of the formula manufacturers research) that these lead to tangible health benefits—they just make formula more expensive. One formula manufacturer’s bold formula label uses a drop shape with the letters HMO in large font, claiming that these letters stand for human milk oligosaccharide and then in minuscule font state “not from human milk.” Disingenuous, misleading, and deceptive marketing only serves to confuse parents and enrich the bottom line.


Jantscher-Krenn, E., Bode, L. (2012). Human milk oligosaccharides and their potential benefits for the breastfed neonate. Minerva Pediatrics, 64, 83-99.

Skorka, A et al. (2018). Infant formulae supplemented with prebiotics: are they better than unsupplemented formulae? An updated systematic review. British Journal of Nutrition, 119, 810-825.

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