First analysis of breast milk nutrient composition of New Zealand mothers from different ethnic groups

8 October 2018

Scientists have investigated the differences in breast milk produced by women from the three main ethnic groups in New Zealand. The findings may help researchers develop a product for breastfeeding mothers that would support their nutrition and therefore their infants’ nutrition through their breast milk.

In a study funded by Nutricia, Plant & Food Research scientists and their research partners analysed the breast milk nutrient composition and dietary intakes of 78 breastfeeding women aged 18 to 55 living in Manawatu-Wanganui. Eight of them identified as Asian (10%), 17 as Māori & Pacific Island (22%), and 53 as European (68%). 

“This is the first study of its kind in New Zealand, and this sample population is representative of the national ethnic composition,” said Dr Christine Butts, Team Leader at Plant & Food Research. “It will offer useful data to any global, large-scale analysis in the future.” 

The observational study, recently published in the academic journal Nutrients, found that whilst the amounts of the main macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrate) were similar across all breastfeeding mothers, there were some associations between ethnicities and the concentrations of particular nutrients, possibly because of dietary choices and lifestyle factors that derive from the ethnic cultures of the mothers.

The breast milk of Asian women contained significantly more polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), omega-3 (n-3) and omega-6 (n-6) fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (n-3 fatty acid; DHA), and linoleic acid (dietary essential n-6 fatty acid) than those of Māori/Pacific Island and European mothers. Arachidonic acid (n-6 fatty acid; ARA) was significantly lower in the breast milk of Māori/Pacific Island mothers than those of their Asian and European counterparts. DHA and ARA are beneficial for infants’ brain, neural and eye development.

Nickkita Lau
Senior Communications Advisor, Corporate Communications,
Plant & Food Research Mt Albert,
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Auckland, 1025, New Zealand
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