Recent study shows: Today’s infant formulas supplemented with oligosaccharides have a strong bifidogenic effect as compared to traditional formula.


A research collaboration within the Dutch public-private partnership CarboHealth, coordinated by the Carbohydrate Competence Center revealed that the gut microbiota composition of infants fed traditional infant formula lacking oligosaccharides was very different from that of breastfed infants. However, the gut microbiota composition difference between infants fed today’s types of infant formulas containing  oligosaccharides and breastfed infants was much smaller.

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Breastfeeding is the best nutrition for newborn infants. In cases when breastfeeding is not, or insufficiently, available, infant formula is the only safe alternative.

Breastfeeding is known to play an important role in the bacterial colonization of the gut resulting in a microbiota composition that is more dominated by bifidobacteria in breastfed infants, as compared to formula fed infants2. This difference has been attributed to the presence of human milk oligosaccharides in breast milk3; these complex sugars serve as energy source for healthy bacteria in the gut. Such sugars were not present in traditional infant formula. Nowadays, infant formula are commonly supplemented with oligosaccharides, such as galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) and/or fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) to support the establishment of a healthy gut microbiota in formula-fed infants4,5.

The study by Borewicz et al1 assessed the microbiota in faecal samples of infants born between 2015 and 2016 receiving breastmilk or infant formula supplemented with oligosaccharides and compared it with samples from infants born between 2002 and 2003 receiving breastmilk or, at that time, traditional infant formula lacking  oligosaccharides.

The study found that faecal bifidobacteriawere higher in breastfed infants and infants fed today’s formulas containing oligosaccharides as compared to traditional formulas. Traditional formula-fed infants had reduced relative abundances of beneficial Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus and higher abundances of the pathogen- containing groups Clostridium and Escherichia-Shigella in their gut microbiota as compared to breastfed infants, whereas infants receiving today’s supplemented formulas did not show such a difference from breastfed infants.

Prof. Dr. Hauke Smidt (Microbiologist, Wageningen University & Research): “The observed effect of different types of infant nutrition on microbiota development and maturation are very intriguing. The next step will be to assess how the differences observed for the first few weeks of life affect microbial development and health throughout infancy and beyond.”

Prof. Dr. Ilja Arts (Molecular Epidemiologist, Maastricht University): “This work demonstrates the relevance of extremely rich data collections such as KOALA and BINGO birth cohorts to enable modern life sciences.”

As the gut microbiota composition has been shown to play an important role in early life gut development, immune maturation and reduction of risk of infections6, the results suggest that today’s supplemented infant formulas are better equipped to support infant gut health as compared to formulas that were marketed before.

Erik Torringa (Product Manager Functional Carbohydrates, FrieslandCampina): “It is great to see that addition of specific oligosaccharide ingredients can contribute to improving the functionality of infant formulas nowadays.”

Link to the full paper:


  1. Borewicz, K. et al. The effect of prebiotic fortified infant formulas on microbiota composition and dynamics in early life. Sci. Rep. 9, 2434 (2019).
  2. Arrieta, M.-C., Stiemsma, L. T., Amenyogbe, N., Brown, E. M. & Finlay, B. The Intestinal Microbiome in Early Life: Health and Disease. Front. Immunol. 5, 1–18 (2014).
  3. Bode, L. Human milk oligosaccharides: Every baby needs a sugar mama. Glycobiology 22, 1147–1162 (2012).
  4. Knol, J. et al. Colon Microflora in Infants Fed Formula with Galacto- and Fructo-Oligosaccharides : More Like Breast-Fed Infants. 13–15 (2005).
  5. Fanaro, S. et al. Galacto-oligosaccharides are bifidogenic and safe at weaning: a double-blind randomized multicenter study. J. Pediatr. Gastroenterol. Nutr. 48, 82–8 (2009).
  6. Scholtens, P. A. M. J., Oozeer, R., Martin, R., Amor, K. Ben & Knol, J. The Early Settlers: Intestinal Microbiology in Early Life. Annu. Rev. Food Sci. Technol. 3, 425–447 (2012).




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