Breast is best – what mothers have suspected for years has long been proven by doctors and scientists. A steady stream of studies has confirmed the connection between breastfeeding and improved health outcomes for infants. At the same time, the composition of human milk has undergone intense scrutiny aimed at identifying the exact components that supply these benefits.
The result of this research is to confirm what many have suspected: Human milk is a highly complex food whose composition varies in accordance with the needs of the infant. Nevertheless, certain key components have long been known. The famous German paediatrician Ernst Moro, after whom the Moro reflex is named, together with the German-Austrian paediatrician Prof. Theodor Escherich, already conducted experiments in the early part of the 20th century that demonstrated the prebiotic effect of human milk oligosaccharides on the development of healthy intestinal flora in infants.
Moro determined that HMOs were the reason why breastfed infants were less likely to succumb to gastrointestinal infections. “Infant food companies have tried to mimic this effect by formulating prebiotic products to seed the gut with healthy bacteria,” says Managing Director Dr. Stefan Jennewein. “They took this route because they had no way of mass producing HMOs, but prebiotics have since been shown to have little effect, paving the way for our products.”
When Dr. Jennewein and his brother founded Jennewein Biotechnologie GmbH in 2005, they decided to take on the challenge of producing the human milk oligosaccharides found in breastmilk on an industrial scale.
“At the time, many large manufacturers were almost in despair over the development of human milk oligosaccharides,” says Dr. Jennewein. “The challenge was to produce HMOs in large quantities and at a reasonable cost – and then have the biotechnical production process officially approved as well.”
The potential benefits of the product were clear to those in the industry, but the hurdles to be overcome were not just technical. “The industry was also fighting against the prejudices of German society in particular, which was hugely suspicious of new technologies in this area and anything that sought to mimic a natural product like human milk,” says Dr. Jennewein. “This is why we decided to focus on HMOs. Because they occur naturally in human milk and have been consumed since the beginning of mankind and because baby food is probably the most strictly regulated foodstuff in the marketplace, we can also rely on the medical profession for their support.”
Jennewein Biotechnologie succeeded in developing a suitable industrial process and received approval in the US in 2015 and in Europe in 2016 under the Novel Foods Regulation Act. “We have always been convinced of the idea and have never given up,” emphasizes the Managing Director and Company Founder. “HMOs are now available as ingredients for infant formula and other nutritional products. We have created the basis for products that come as close to the natural original as possible.”
Since its start from small beginnings, Jennewein Biotechnologie has accumulated as many as 250 patents and patent applications worldwide. “We met with a lot of scepticism at first,” remembers Dr. Jennewein. “Today Jennewein Biotechnologie is a well-recognized name in the infant food business.”
Guided by the overall aim of developing products that contribute to consumer health and well-being, Jennewein Biotechnologie focuses on sugar molecules that show promising health benefits. The company’s products are used as active food ingredients in functional foods, animal feeds, cosmetics, personal care and pharmaceutical products, but also as research and development reagents. Proprietary production methods allow for the large-scale and cost-effective manufacture of rare functional monosaccharides and HMOs with new and exciting application areas.
Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) represent one of the company’s major fields of activity. HMOs cannot be digested by humans and do not provide calories, yet they have various functional health benefits. Preclinical and clinical scientific references have shown that they reduce the risk of infection from certain bacterial and viral pathogens, stimulate the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria through their prebiotic effect and reduce the risk of inflammation whilst promoting brain development and neuronal activity.
Marketed under the Mum’s Sweet Secret brand, the HMOs manufactured by Jennewein Biotechnologie feature functional properties that make them attractive ingredients for use in infant and therapeutic nutrition.
“Up until now our operations have focused on our overseas markets, particularly Asia and the USA, where the functional health benefits of infant food receive far more attention than in Central Europe for instance,” says Dr. Jennewein. “Now that we are obtaining EU approval, we are expecting further impulses for growth. Once our Mum’s Sweet Secret range is accepted in the infant formula products market, we see other promising opportunities for example in medical nutrition, hospital nutrition or even in the fresh dairy industry.”
Jennewein Biotechnologie is working on a broad pipeline of new products with promising applications. Human milk contains more than 150 different complex oligosaccharides, all of which influence the development of the human microbiome. Certain selected HMOs have already been successfully produced with more to follow.
“The more of these sugars that we can mass produce, the closer we can mimic human milk with infant formula,” says Dr. Jennewein. “The economic potential is vast.” Germany is one of the cheapest places to buy infant formula. China, by contrast, is one of the most expensive markets, with the cost being as much as six times higher than in Germany. “Innovation in baby food finds a much more receptive audience across Asia,” adds Dr. Jennewein. “Our HMOs are just what the market over there is crying out for.”