Book Review: Handbook of Dietary and Nutritional Aspects of Human Breast Milk

Handbook of Dietary and Nutritional Aspects of Human Breast Milk. Edited by: Sherma Zibadi, Ronald Ross Watson, and Victor R. Preedy. Human Health Handbooks no. 5 – Wageningen Academic Publishers. 2013 – 856 pages – hardback – EUR 178 – ISBN: 978-90-8686-209-2

Call it a handbook, an overview, a reference, a compilation of papers, or a comprehensive review; all labels apply. More articles could have been included, and a few are at best marginal contributions. There is no indication that each of the 48 papers was peer-reviewed, but the 3 editors must be praised for their selections and admired for their excellent work on a massive task touching on so many disciplines.

The chapters are grouped into 5 sections: breast structure, function and general aspects (7 ch., pp. 15–143); lactation (4 ch., pp. 147–213); composition of breast milk (19 ch., pp. 217–531); beneficial factors on lactation or composition of breast milk (8 ch., pp. 535–654); and adverse factors on lactation or composition or breast milk (10 ch., pp. 657–831). The index of 15 pages seams meager but is adequate. A strong feature of the book is its systematic layout and uniformity of each chapter: Contributors’ names and their affiliations; Abstract; Key facts; Summary points; Abbreviations; Introduction; specific chapters and subchapters; Conclusions (in some cases missing); Acknowledgments (if needed); and References.

An overview of the chapter authors and co-authors indicates that human milk is truly an international field of study. Eleven researchers conducted their work in the USA, 5 each in Italy and Japan, 4 in Turkey, 3 each in Canada, Germany, and The Netherlands, 2 each in Brazil, France, and Switzerland, and 1 each was affiliated with a research base in Australia, Austria, Czech Republic, Greece, Indonesia, Norway, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Taiwan, and Thailand.

As can be expected, the 4 dozen chapters of the book vary considerably in length, substance, and even pertinence to the book's topic. For example, the overviews on mammary gland development and structure, on immune aspects of breast milk, and on colostrum are textbook-worthy, whereas “dioxins in human breast milk in Vietnam” seems only tangentially related because of its unique occurrence (Vietnam War, 1961–1971). The subject of “organochlorine pesticides in colostrum” has a much longer and geographically broader history. I know first-hand, since a study of mine under a similar title was published by Pediatrics in 1971, a mere 10 years after Rachel Carson drew attention to this problem in her remarkable best-selling report.

Even though this book has “breast milk” in its title, it is not only aimed at a medical audience, but definitely also targets the hundreds of experts worldwide devoted to mammary glands other than those of the human species. Again I feel addressed, because in the early 1960s I had translated various German research journal articles for my mentor Stuart Patton. He was not only known as a highly visible flavor chemist, but subsequently also became very active in studying the biosynthesis of milk lipids, which occupied him for much of his 50-year research career.

The production of milk, the oldest and most important food known to humankind, is a wondrous biological phenomenon. Milk and the gland from which it originates, along with the underlying hormonal and circulatory systems, are more complex and in need of answers than even this book attempts to convey. I predict another handbook by this title will be forthcoming in about 10 years. It ought to contain, and this is only one suggestion, the story of human milk banks and the related “scary” and unregulated internet market of breast milk, again referring to a study in Pediatrics (October 2013).

Manfred Kroger, Ph.D.

Scientific Editor, Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety

Professor of Food Science Emeritus, The Pennsylvania State Univ.