Why some adults are drinking human milk

It's no longer just being used to feed hungry babies...
28 March 2022

Interview with 

JJ Ritenour & Sarah Steele, University of Cambridge

WEIGHTS-GYM

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Outside the realm of medicine and science, human milk has acquired a new customer base, potentially explaining how Julia was able to so quickly source this fluid online. One of our Naked Scientists, Anoushka Handa, got in touch with JJ Ritenour, a bodybuilder from South Carolina, who has a unique motivation for consuming human milk, and discusses this market with the University of Cambridge's Sarah Steele…

JJ - Everyone's always looking for an edge some way. And I just randomly came across this YouTube video: huge ripped guy, pro bodybuilder, and he was supplementing with his daughter's breast milk. Because I knew we had extra milk in the fridge at the time from when my girlfriend was breastfeeding, and usually the extra stuff she would just dump down the drain, I was like, "Well, instead of binning it, do you care if I put it in my shake?" She was like, "Yeah, sure. I mean, we're just going to throw it away. If you think it's going to help, why not?" I took it from the fridge and just dumped it in my shake and knocked it back.

Anoushka - I saw that you had another person who you used to source the human milk. What was the first step in sourcing that human milk?

JJ - I was concerned, like, "Where am I going to get it from?" Clearly my kids were grown at this point. I did try to research, and I just found that for someone like me walking off the street, "Hey, do you guys have breast milk to donate to me, to use as supplement in my shake?" Everybody was saying no.

Anoushka - Is that from a milk bank?

JJ - Yeah. From the milk bank. I made a random post on one of my friends' Facebook pages, who recently had a baby, about how some people will pay for breast milk. I get a ding, a notification from Tiffany and it's like, "Hey, friend of a friend, I have some breast milk if you're interested?"

Anoushka - And when you got the milk, did you take any precautions before you drank it?

JJ - No, I sure didn't. I just looked at it. It wasn't any crazy colours, I didn't see any pink swirls or anything like that. If I saw something like that, I would assume it was blood in the milk. It looked just like all the other breast milk.

Anoushka - There's a series of things that can be passed down from human milk down to a child. Do you think that you were worried about any infections like HIV, STIs, any bacteria that would be passed to you?

JJ - It didn't cross my mind. I know that through childbirth, those can be transmitted, but I didn't really put much thought into it being in the milk.

Anoushka - Let's take Tiffany out of the equation. She decides to stop giving milk to anyone. If you are presented with two new people, same situation: one which has screened the milk, one, which hasn't, and they're selling it at the same price, who would you go for?

JJ - If it's the same, and the only difference is that it's screened, I definitely would probably go with the screened one. It would be a different conversation. I'm like, "Well, this milk is actually screened and pasteurised against pathogens" and make sure that I'm being as healthy as possible in this space.

Julia - Someone who is concerned about the increased adult interest in human milk is Sarah Steele, a senior research associate at Cambridge Public Health, focusing on problems at the interface of public health and law. Anoushka Handa asked her what problems human milk sales might cause, and why she thinks this market is more in demand.

Sarah - Clinicians, the World Health Organisation, various midwifery and nursing bodies have put out there all this information on human milk, because it's "wonder-food." That's really critical work that they're doing, but people misunderstand it. There's a lot of online forums, a lot of social media posts that misconstrue it and engage in misinformation. Sometimes I'm concerned it's disinformation about the benefits of drinking this for adults.

Anoushka - Are there any benefits to drinking this as an adult and what risks are adults taking by drinking human milk as well?

Sarah - The answer, to be completely honest with you, is there's not enough good science to show what the benefits are of drinking this as an adult. Like any food, it can offer us benefits, but also, like any food, it can pose us risks. This is a body fluid, right? It is at the end of the day something we are producing; it contains white blood cells, it can contain pus, it can contain red blood cells - you name it, it can contain it as a body fluid. Certain things pass across to the milk, like caffeine, or if people are consuming alcohol. So, there's dietary influences and drug influences here. There are a range of things that actually wind up in breast milk that pose risks to consumers. We've seen advertisements where you can buy this milk off of eBay, shipped via Royal Mail second class. I'd be really worried about that safety for an infant consumer, but for adults, the issue for me and the big risk here is for immunocompromised adults, which we're seeing this milk being touted online as a miracle food for.

Anoushka - Are there other people who also buy this milk for various different reasons?

Sarah - So we've seen a lot of posts in body builder forums with gyms. I think one of the big movements I'm seeing a lot of is around clean eating. It's not necessarily terribly cleaner in any sense. What is making me very nervous is, as we move to view this as a clean-eat treat, as a kind of alternative to your whey protein shake, how are you handling it? How are you getting it? Who are you getting it from?

Anoushka - Ethically, should adults be drinking this at all?

Sarah - I think as we move to consume this and see it as a commercial product, or a thing that can be bought and sold, we could wind up in a situation where we engage in deeply troubling and unethical practices. If adult consumers start to see this as a viable alternative to normal milk in supermarkets, how do we get enough of it? We end up with women pumping for profit to become, in effect, human dairy cows. That is a horrifying scenario to me. If adult consumers drink this in vast quantities and see this as the new whey protein shake, we need to ask where the milk comes from and have regulatory oversight to make sure that unethical practices aren't continued.

Chris - Indeed. We're speaking about human milk being sold online. You probably remember earlier on in the program you heard Julia being quite surprised herself, when the sample she had ordered on eBay turned up at her doorstep and the postman hot-footed it before she had a chance to find out how surprised he was. Well, I've got the lab results, Julia, because I took this into our laboratory at the Addenbrooke's hospital in Cambridge and asked them to put this through the protocol that we use in the hospital when a mother donates some breast milk for use in, for instance, our neonatal intensive care unit for a baby whose mum might not be able to breastfeed it. And we have a protocol we follow to test not for viruses under these circumstances, but for bacteria. Now I've kept you in the dark to a certain extent here. What do you think we found?

Julia - I think the plates will be teeming with bacteria because breast milk has bacteria in it anyway. So that's what I'm thinking - lots of growth. What did we see?

Chris - That's exactly what I expected to see because, as you say, our skin is covered in microbes and we know that babies rely on getting those from their mums because it helps to set up their intestinal flora. I was gobsmacked to find that these plates were completely clear. This was sterile. There were no organisms detected at all. The only way I can suggest this is either someone had pasteurised this milk or added something to stop bacteria growing and kill them all off. Or was it even breast milk? We don't actually know. So, I suggest there's scope for another programme in this and you and I have to go away and find out. 

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