Breast Milk Testing: Scaremongering, Not Science

New mothers, especially first-time mothers, tend to worry about whether they are doing what is best for their babies. A new service, Happy Vitals, will only add to those worries. We know that breast is best, but these folks make women question whether their breast milk is good enough. They say:

Happy Vitals provides families with the tools they need to monitor and improve the long-term health of their children. With our simple and easy-to-use tests, mothers can learn for the first time about the nutrient make-up of their breast milk, improve their diet and nutrition, and safeguard against exposure to heavy metals and other toxins that are harmful to a child’s growth and development.

After a crowdfunding/pre-sale campaign, they plan to start shipping kits this month. They offer various packages. For $149.95, they will analyze a sample of breast milk for four key nutrients: glucose, lactose, protein, and fat. For $559.95, they will also test for:

  • Four “indicators of immunity”: cortisol, IgA antibodies, IgG antibodies, IgM antibodies.
  • Eleven micronutrients: calcium, folate, iron, vitamin D, vitamin A, ferritin, magnesium, phosphorous, sodium, potassium, and vitamin B12.
  • Four heavy metal toxins: arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium (based on samples of infant’s hair and nails.)

This qualifies as “too much information.” What do the results mean, and how will knowing them make a difference for the infant’s health? They promise to provide raw test results, a graph showing the trends over time, and a detailed explanation of what each biomarker means for child development and how to manage it to stay healthy. They acknowledge that breast milk varies in content over time, and they recommend testing four times during the infant’s first year of life. There is no good science to support such testing. There is no evidence that knowing the levels of those biomarkers and trying to change them by manipulating maternal diet and lifestyle would have any significant effect on an infant’s health.

They are also planning a Happy Children’s Health Study, where those who have purchased their kits will be asked to share their health information. Such a study would be inherently flawed because the participants would not be a representative sample. Only those who are overly concerned about their health and who can afford the testing would be included. They are already accepting tax-deductible donations to the Happy Children Foundation. In my opinion, your money would be better invested elsewhere to support more meaningful scientific research.

Other breast milk testing offers

DHA: Omega 3s and 6sAn article in The Guardian describes My Milk Count, a service that analyses breast milk for levels of DHA, in less than favorable terms. They say, “The idea that human breast milk may not be good enough for human babies is clearly absurd.” They cite an article by Analytical Armadillo that questions the rationale for testing and points out that optimal levels of DHA have not been established; estimates are based on studies from Japan, a country that has the second highest level of DHA in the world. Also, breast milk composition varies markedly, even during a single feeding, and the optimal timing of collection has not been established. Unicef UK, which designed the Baby Friendly Initiative along with the World Health Organization in part to support breast feeding, said, “Unicef UK is not aware of any reason why women should get their breast milk tested for nutrients.” If a woman wants to increase the omega 3/omega 6 ratio in her diet, she can do that simply by eating more fish. There is no need to spend £99 to test her breast milk.

Alcohol: Mothers who are concerned that they might be drinking too much can buy test strips to detect alcohol in breast milk from Another article in The Guardian questions the validity of the test and worries that relying on it could harm babies and encourage excessive drinking in lactating women.

Worried about environmental toxins?

Environmental toxins can be detected in breast milk, but the poison is in the dose, and we are talking about very low levels that have never been demonstrated to cause harm. Florence Williams wrote the book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History to address toxins in breast milk. She had her own breast milk tested for flame retardants (PDBEs). She says breasts “soak up pollution like a pair of soft sponges.” An article on the Best for Babes website counters her scaremongering with some facts:

  • Levels of some chemicals in breast milk have been going down.
  • There are toxins in formula too
  • Breast milk may actually protect babies from toxins
  • Research has found no adverse consequences of key chemicals found in breast milk
  • Not everything in the environment or diet gets into breast milk
  • Short of you being poisoned, breastfeeding is recommended

An article in Scientific American says:

Although breast milk tends to attract heavy metals and other contaminants due to its high-fat and protein content, some recent research has shown its toxic load to be smaller than that in the air most city dwellers breathe inside their homes.

The infamous Dr. Mercola is concerned about glyphosate levels in breast milk and quotes a “world GMO expert” who says glyphosate may be even more toxic than DDT. He even suggests sending Monsanto a thank-you note for your gluten allergy. But to his credit, he does say breastfeeding is still the healthiest option.

Epidemiologist and physician Miriam Labbok says:

To date, no environmental contaminant, except in situations of acute poisoning, has been found to cause more harm to infants than does lack of breast-feeding. I have seen no data that would argue against breastfeeding, even in the presence of today’s levels of environmental toxicants.

Evidence-based reasons for testing

Human milk donation: Peer-to peer donation of breast milk can be hazardous. A recent study found that 3.3% of volunteer, unpaid milk donors tested positive for communicable diseases like syphilis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HTLV and HIV. There are human milk banks that screen donors and have established standards for collection, handling, processing and testing to ensure safety.

Premature infants: There is some evidence that testing milk for protein content can guide supplementation to improve the growth rate of preemies.

A disturbing trend

There are many ill-conceived offers for direct-to-consumer lab tests. They capitalize on human fears and scientific illiteracy. Doctors already order too many tests, and patients can’t be expected to have better judgment. False positive results are common when a condition has low prevalence in the population being tested. Patients don’t know how to evaluate their test results or put them into perspective. They don’t know whether they can do anything about worrisome results that will actually make a difference in their health outcomes. Tests like breast milk tests are not likely to accomplish anything good, and they can be expected to do a lot of harm in the form of wasted money and unnecessary anxiety.

What’s next? Here is a warning about blood: it contains more than 4000 chemicals including:

…formaldehyde, acetone, ethanol, ketone bodies, dihydrogen monoxide, tryptophan, urea, dehydroepiandrosterone, hexosephosphate P, and at least 20 kinds of acids. Nearly every chemical constituent will, in certain concentrations, kill children and adults.

If I were an unscrupulous businessperson, I would be tempted to market tests for some of those substances in blood. I would advertise that if you had any of a long laundry list of symptoms from fatigue to dry skin it could be due to a dangerous substance in your blood. I would send out a kit with a lancet and filter paper with instructions for collecting a finger-prick specimen to mail in. I would report the findings along with information about the potential hazards of each component and suggestions about how the levels might be influenced by diet, supplements, etc. I would recommend diet supplements and detoxification products to reduce risk, and I would sell them at inflated prices. I would promote repeat testing at frequent intervals to monitor progress. I could make millions. But I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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