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Discovering the science behind HMOs

How do HMOs function in the body?

After ingestion, human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) are resistant to digestion in the upper gastrointestinal tract, reaching the lower digestive tract fully intact. Once they arrive there, HMOs serve as natural prebiotics, or ’food’ for probiotics. As such, they support the infant gut microbiome's growth and development.

In addition, HMOs have been shown to support intestinal integrity, brain development, cognitive capacities and immune health. They impact the natural development of the neonatal microbiome. HMOs have been scientifically studied to support the development of normal immune and digestive systems in preterm infants.

Our research team is focused on further exploring and developing the health benefits of HMOs.


Are HMOs similar to other prebiotics such as GOS/FOS?

While all belong to the class of prebiotics, they differentiate substantially in their structure and function. Further, HMOs are the only prebiotics that appear naturally in breast milk. Besides being bifidogenic – supporting the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria in the intestinal tract – HMOs also support intestinal health and wellbeing, support brain development and help balance the immune system.


Key functions of HMOs

There is a vast landscape of studies of the benefits of HMOs. Key insights:

  • In scientific studies, infants consuming an infant formula with 2’-FL were reported to show a profile of proteins connected to the immune response that is comparable to that in breast-fed infants.1 Increased concentrations of 2’-FL and 6’-SL in breast-milk are associated with improved neurodevelopment in the first month of life.2

  • HMOs are suggested to support the immune system and to support intestinal health and integrity. Specific HMOs bind to glycan-binding proteins on the cell surfaces that are essential in immune responses.3 Several HMOs have been suggested to support a balanced microbiota via different mechanisms e.g. by favoring healthy bacteria. HMOs support different pathways in the immune system and thereby they are also suggested to support areas related to immune health such as skin health and respiratory health.4

  • Higher concentrations of 2’-FL in breast milk are suggested to support cognitive development in early life.5

  • In their nature as prebiotics, HMOs serve as food for gut bacteria which have the capability to metabolize oligosaccharides. Different Bifidobacteria, Bacteroides and other beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacilli and Akkermannsia6 can use HMO either directly or due to cross feeding. By promoting good bacteria, the growth of potentially harmful gut bacteria is reduced. Further, by secreting acidic metabolites – such as short chain fatty acids (SCFA) – the environment makes it more difficult for harmful bacteria to grow. In addition, the SCFA are known to influence epithelial functions and immune responses7. Thus, HMOs have a dual benefit directly on immune function and via the promoted gut microbiome. 


1  Göhring et al., 2016.
 2 Oliveros, 2020.
 3 Ayechu-Muruzabal et al., 2018.
 4 Zuurveld et al., 2020.
 5 Berger et al., 2020.
 6 Gotho et al., 2018, Kostopoulus et al., 2020.
 7 Li et al., 2018.