Adult health craze for human breast milk poses risks

Some adults are buying breast milk online believing it offers health benefits, but doctors say there is no scientific evidence to back up such claims.

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Like many an Internet craze, it arose out of a perfect storm of dubious health claims, scientific misconceptions, greed, and a subculture of fetishists. The next thing you know, people are selling and buying human breast milk online for adult consumption.

Now a lucrative online market exists for adult buyers of breast milk. Websites and online discussion forums tout its supposed benefits as a superfood that can help bodybuilders bulk up. A common claim is that breast milk is more digestible than cow's or other milk and contains immune-building properties. Some even suggest it can cure cancer. In the U.S., one listing website is growing by 700-800 members a month.

But doctors say these "benefits" are bunk and the risks of buying breast milk online are all too real.

In an editorial published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, the authors, led by Dr. Sarah Steele of Queen Mary University of London, write that the health claims do not stand up clinically and that raw human milk purchased online poses many health risks.

"Human breast milk is not delivering the nutritional benefit it touts online," Steele told CBS News.

Yes, breast milk is full of nutritional benefits for babies. According to the American Pregnancy Association, breast milk contains the "perfect combination of proteins, fats, vitamins and carbohydrates" for newborn development. However, the same is not true for adults. That's because the nutritional benefits in breast milk get broken down differently in the gut of an infant than they do in the digestive system of an adult.

For an adult, "nutritionally there is less protein in breast milk than other milks like cow's milk," she said. Steele also notes that the composition of breast milk changes as an infant grows from 1 month to 4 months and so on, so the nutritional makeup will vary.

Breast milk bought online can also vary depending on what the woman expressing the milk consumes. "Prescription drugs, illicit drugs, alcohol and food make it into milk," Steele said. Although women who are selling their breast milk online provide information on their lifestyle and dietary habits, they might fail to mention specific things.

CBS News recently reported on a study out of the Center for Biobehavioral Health at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus which found that 11 out of 102 breast milk samples purchased online were actually blended with cow's milk.

Research has also found dangerous impurities can occur in human breast milk, including bacterial food-borne illnesses if the milk is not properly sanitized or stored, and infectious diseases including hepatitis, HIV and syphilis.

"While many online mums claim they have been tested for viruses during pregnancy, many do not realize that serological screening needs to be undertaken regularly," Steele said in a press release. "Sexual and other activities in the postpartum period may expose the woman expressing to viruses that they may unwittingly pass on to consumers of the milk."

Bacterial food-borne illnesses are especially harmful to immune-compromised individuals including cancer patients, who might consume human breast milk if they believe it has curative powers.

There is some evidence that a protein-lipid in breast milk known as HAMLET might have potential uses in treating cancer, but doctors warn that the results used lab models and do not translate to human consumption of breast milk.

"Research is at the trial stage so researchers don't know the level of benefits," Steele said. "But you can't find a remedy in the home kitchen."

The authors of the editorial are calling on government and health officials to disseminate factual information about breast milk to help dispel the myths of this so-called "liquid gold" for adults.

"We want people informed about the risk because [breast milk] is not necessarily the superfood it claims to be," Steele said.