New Milk Knowledge

Dec 4th, 2008 | By | Category: Dear Science Column

First, Science Magazine is both impressed and disgusted by the clever chemistry behind melamine finding its way into infant formula:

A weeks-long investigation into China’s tainted milk scandal has left scientists astonished by the technical sophistication of those who used melamine to adulterate food products. Chinese investigators, meanwhile, are puzzling over the precise mechanisms of exposure and toxicity in infants who developed kidney damage…

Researchers say the adulteration was nothing short of a wholesale re-engineering of milk. Weeks ago, investigators established that workers at Sanlu and at a number of milk-collection depots were diluting milk with water; they added melamine to dupe a test for determining crude protein content. “Adulteration used to be simple. What they did was very high-tech,” says Chen. Researchers have since learned that the emulsifier used to suspend melamine—a compound that resists going into solution—also boosted apparent milk-fat content.

When the first melamine scandal broke in the United States, I was similarly impressed and distressed:

The killer pet food used “human-grade protein” from China which had melamine—a slightly toxic coal byproduct—mixed in to make a crappy product mimic a high-quality one. It was crafty chemistry. Melamine is a six-member ring of alternating carbons and nitrogens. The three NH2s—the amino groups—hanging off the ring chemically behave like the amino groups that hang off every amino acid in proteins. The chemical reaction that determines protein amounts in food works by detecting these amino-to-carbon bonds. The test doesn’t care if the amino groups are in melamine or protein, so it gets duped….

These schemes are brilliant, employing clever chemistry and marketing—everything but manufacturing a quality product. Imagine what China’s emerging businessmen and scientists could accomplish in a system that punishes cheating your customers, demands quality products, and protects intellectual property.

Next, a pleasant symbiotic relationship between breast milk, bacteria and babies in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In order to develop properly—to grow the brain and nervous system in particular—babies need specific nutrients like foliate. Mothers cannot directly provide these nutrients, because humans lack the enzymes to generate them. Some bacteria can make these nutrients, but need a food source to do so.

Mothers make a particular collection of food molecules in breast milk, that the baby cannot directly use, to be consumed by a friendly family of bacteria. These bacteria, in turn, produce foliate and other crucial nutrients for the baby. How impressive and heartening.