For decades, companies selling probiotic cultures have claimed the gut is the key to good health. Now, researchers around the world are investigating the health benefits of colostrum. Rhonda Witwer examines the evidence.
From a microbiological point of view, the gut harbours a complex ecosystem of beneficial as well as harmful pathogens. The body's immune system, like the beneficial bacteria, is always competing to contain and control any harmful, disease-causing bacteria, viruses, fungi and otherpathogens that are present.
A new ingredient is emerging to further validate this theory of health: colostrum. Colostrum is the milk produced by a mother for the first few days after giving birth. It is rich in immune components (including antibodies and lactoferrin) as well as growth factors (including insulin-like growth factor, IGF, and transforming growth factor, TGF).
Colostrum has been actively researched and marketed for decades as a replacement food in veterinary markets because animals deprived of their first colostrum are at significant risk of life-threatening infections and death. The benefits of human colostrum have also been aggressively researched for decades. In addition, Nestle has investigated the use of bovine colostrum in infant formulas for infant health.
Based on this knowledge, a number of research groups around the world are now exploring the health benefits of human consumption of bovine colostrum. They include:
- The Agricultural Research Centre of Finland.
- The University of Turku.
- Novatreat, a biotechnology company based in the Turku Technology Center.
- Valio, a Finnish dairy company is reported to be actively conducting research.
- The University of South Australia, (sponsored by NorthField Laboratories, a wholly owned subsidiary of Numico).
- The Milk and Health Research Centre (MHRC) in Palmerston North, New Zealand. The MHRC is a joint venture between the New Zealand Dairy Research Institute, Massey University and the New Zealand Dairy Board.
- Imperial College School of Medicine in London, England.
There are also two United States-based groups:
- ImmuCell, based in Portland, Maine, has been collaborating with investigators at numerous academic institutions including the Mayo Clinic and Tufts University, to develop drugs to treat and prevent specific infections.
- GalaGen Inc., based in Minnetonka, Minnesota, has sponsored numerous clinical trials, primarily focused on treatment and prevention of specific infections and for the development of new medical and pharmaceutical products.
There are many facets to the colostrum story. While there is no dispute that colostrum contains multiple beneficial bioactive ingredients, what specific population segments will benefit most from which components is still under active investigation. Some are being developed to target specific conditions, while others are being developed for general health. ImmuCell is developing a drug (named DiffGAMM) for the treatment of Clostridium difficile infections (a common occurrence following antibiotic intake). In April 2001, ImmuCell announced a partnership with Novatreat, a Finnish biotechnology company, which is developing immune milk and colostrum products to be used in the fight against hospital infections. Novatreat will be selecting high-risk patients in Finnish hospitals for the completion of Phase II clinical trials of DiffGAMM.
Dr. Hannu Korhonen, at the Agricultural Research Centre of Finland, has also been actively researching various aspects of specialty colostrum for years. She has published numerous papers on the efficacy of specially prepared colostrum to reduce and prevent the adherence of Streptococcus mutans in the oral cavity, a new and potentially valuable tool in the prevention of dental cavities. Dr. Korhonen is also Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board at Novatreat.
Dr. Eileen Bostwick at GalaGen has produced specially prepared colostrum to prevent and treat infections due to C. difficile, Cryptosporidium parvum, (a cause of AIDS related wasting diarrhoea), Candida albicans (the agent responsible for oral thrush and vaginitis), and Shigella flexneri (a major cause of travellers' diarrhoea and sepsis).
These specialty colostrum products were created by immunizing the cows against specific pathogens prior to the birth of the calf. The cow then exhibits a natural immune response to that particular pathogen. Her colostrum contains all of the immune components, but the antibodies and other factors focused against the targeted pathogen are elevated. It must be noted that similar quantities of 'normal' colostrum cannot be substituted for 'specialty' colostrum targeting these particular pathogens to achieve therapeutic results.
Additional research is focusing specifically on the health benefits of the growth factors. NorthField Laboratories in Australia asserts that consumption of relatively large quantities (60 grams/day) of concentrated, dried colostrum enhances athletic performance and improves physical recovery from hard training. Other papers have claimed improved recovery from strenuous exercise by elite Olympic athletes.
Raymond Playford at the Imperial College School of Medicine in London, England, has been investigating the gastrointestinal benefits of bovine colostrum. He has demonstrated that dietary intake of colostrum reduces the gastrointestinal damage from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). He attributes this benefit to the growth factors in the colostrum. This is a new and valuable tool in the struggle to balance the use of aspirin for heart health and the gastrointestinal problems experienced from such use, as well as relieving gastrointestinal damage from other causes.
The most recent research focuses on the dietary intake of low quantities of 'normal' colostrum for support of the body's immune health and wellness. While prior research established that colostral antibodies weaken and prevent the adherence of a wide spectrum of pathogens onto the epithelial cells of the gastrointestinal tract, the required amount was linked to the quantity of harmful pathogens in the GI tract. Treatment or prevention of infections requires large quantities of antibodies. To combat the low numbers of disease-causing agents to which people's GI tracts are exposed on an ongoing basis, intake of low levels of colostrum may be sufficient to prevent these pathogens from gaining a foothold or entry into the body to cause damage. In other words, eliminating pathogens at the earliest stages may be the easiest way of maintaining health and wellness.
New studies also suggest that dietary consumption of bovine colostrum may stimulate the body's immune system. The University of Turku, Finland, has published the results of a clinical trial that demonstrated a trend toward enhanced immune response to vaccination following dietary consumption of colostrum. While the study contained only eighteen participants, it is certainly suggestive that colostrum's health benefits extend beyond the digestive tract and oral cavity.
Processing Challenges The concentration of immune components in colostrum varies from cow to cow, depending upon the challenges present in her environment. Development of colostrum as a functional food ingredient will require blending or stringent quality control standards to insure a consistent product.
The heat sensitivity of colostrum poses additional challenges. If it is subject to high temperatures, the immune components rapidly degrade. Only testing of the final product can determine how much of the immune components remain biologically active following processing of the ingredient and incorporation into a final consumer product.
Bovine colostrum is emerging as a new and valuable ingredient with a variety of health benefits. It has many of the key success factors necessary for a functional food ingredient: it is from a natural food source, and is already present in the food supply. Its immune components are in milk, although at significantly lower quantities. However, high temperature pasteurisation destroys the biological activity of these components. Thus, when we used to drink milk fresh-from-the-cow, we were consuming these biologically beneficial components on a regular basis.
Colostrum can be tailored for particular health benefits or utilised for general support of the immune system. While the colostrum developed for specific conditions illustrate the power and range of bioactive components in colostrum, the greatest benefit may be in maintaining health & wellness.
After all, the number one most requested health benefit in the US and in the top three of European consumers is natural support of the immune system to maintain health and wellness.
Colostral derived ingredients are commercially available as dietary supplements in the United States, and are being developed in foods, medical foods and drugs in the US and Europe.
—Rhonda S. Witwer
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