Carotenoid levels in breast milk vary by country, diet

By Natalie van Hoose - Published November 6, 2015

Mario Ferruzzi stands amidst orange and yellow producePurdue food and nutrition scientist Mario Ferruzzi says nursing women can boost the carotenoid levels of their breast milk by eating orange or yellow produce and dark, leafy greens. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

A Purdue University-led analysis of breast milk concludes that levels of health-promoting compounds known as carotenoids differ by country, with the U.S. lagging behind China and Mexico, a reflection of regional dietary habits.

Carotenoids are plant pigments that potentially play functional roles in human development and are key sources of vitamin A, an essential component of eye health and the immune system. The carotenoid content of a woman's breast milk is determined by her consumption of fruits and vegetables such as squash, citrus, sweet potatoes and dark, leafy greens.

"Nursing women should eat fruits and vegetables as recommended in dietary guidelines," says Mario Ferruzzi, professor of food science and nutrition.

The study found that the mean amount of total carotenoids in American women's breast milk two weeks after giving birth was about 40 percent lower than levels in Chinese women's milk and about 25 percent lower than levels in Mexican women's milk. The gap could be indicative of the lower amount of fruits and vegetables eaten in the U.S., Ferruzzi said.

Socioeconomic factors also play a role, he says: "If you really want to look at who eats fruits and vegetables, it's the people who have access to them and can afford them."