Working alongside researchers from the Broad Institute in the US, the University of Bologna in Italy and the icddr,b in Bangladesh, Nestlé scientists have found a new bacteria becomes prevalent in the intestine as children transition from infancy to early childhood.
The research, published in journal Cell, was conducted on Bangladeshi infants and showed the populations of three distinct groups of Bifidobacterium longum (B. longum) expand significantly during weaning, when solid foods are introduced to the diet of an infant.
The study followed 267 infants in Bangladesh from birth up to two years of age. Most of the mothers chose to exclusively breastfeed their infants for the first six months of their lives and then introduced to solid foods in combination with breastmilk. The three groups of B. longum appeared to have the capacity to utilise both key components from human milk and fibres from solid foods as an energy source, the researchers noted.
The new strains are distinct from other beneficial B. longum, including B. longum infantis, which is predominant during early infancy and exclusive breastfeeding. This new strains may constitute a novel subspecies, Nestlé said.
The ‘next generation’ of nutritional solutions
Infant formula manufacturer Nestlé believes that the work will facilitate the identification of the ‘next generation’ of nutritional solutions and probiotics to support the growth and development of young children during the weaning period.
“This work will continue to build on our long-standing research on the gut microbiome and its evolving composition throughout different ages and life stages, in connection with nutrition. Specifically, we would like to confirm the hypothesis that the new strains thrive on the combination of HMOs (Human Milk Oligosaccharides) from human milk and fibres from the complementary diet, as hypothesized in the Cell paper,” a spokesperson for the company told FoodNavigator.
Typically commencing at around six months, weaning is thought to be a ‘uniquely important’ period of immune development as it represents the first exposure of the immune system to many new environmental signals from food and bacteria.
Indeed, the study revealed the novel B. longum groups were found to be associated with early growth and the severity of childhood diarrhoea. For instance, B. longum subsp. infantis and its associated metabolites, such as indolelactate, were positively correlated with two measures of growth, namely weight-for-length and weight-for age. On the other hand, B. longum subsp. longum and transitional B. longum were inversely associated with the severity of diarrhoea.
“Previous research has shown that disruptions in the development of the gut microbiome during infancy can alter immune development and consequently long-term health and wellbeing. Furthering the understanding of the developing microbiome in children can help elucidate the mechanisms that support healthy immune development in children,” the spokesperson said. “Weaning is a period of gradual introduction of complementary foods to an infant’s diet at six months together with continued breastfeeding (up to two years of age as recommended by WHO). Research has shown that introducing complementary food has a significant impact on the development of the gut microbiome. This scientific work paves the way for solutions supporting children's growth and development in this important phase.”
Microbiome ‘an important research area’
Nestlé believes that the weaning phase represents an important innovation opportunity. According to Isabelle Bureau-Franz, Head of Nestlé Research, ‘no specific solutions’ currently exist for shaping the gut ecosystem and immune health at this developmental stage. "This discovery opens new possibilities for developing the next-generation of nutritional solutions that can help to maintain or restore a diverse and fully functional gut microbiome in infants. This can be obtained either through boosting beneficial gut microbes by feeding them with optimal nutrients or by supplementing with probiotics,” she noted.
Nestlé added that expanding its understanding of the microbiome and gut health are ‘important research areas for us’, pointing to prior scientific advances that the company was able to successfully translate into nutritional solutions. “Over many years our research has been translated into products that help maintain healthy digestion, wellbeing and other health benefits for different populations – for example Nestlé Purina launched Calming Care, an innovative probiotic-based nutritional supplement tailored for the management of anxious behavior in dogs. The findings were leveraged to develop a number of innovative solutions addressing different needs at different life stages. This included innovations for infant nutrition, where the research on HMOs - a major component of breastmilk that has been shown to influence early life microbiome establishment and the development of the immune system – has been applied to launch new infant formulas that include HMOs,” FoodNavigator was told.
In terms of next steps, Nestlé scientists are now working on the further characterizing this strain, its novelty and its role during weaning. They also would like to confirm the presence of novel strains in geographical locations beyond Bangladesh.
'A distinct clade of Bifidobacterium longum in the gut of Bangladeshi children thrives during weaning'
Authors: Tommi Vatanen et al