Concentration and distribution of sialic acid in human milk and infant formulas

Am J Clin Nutr. 2001 Oct;74(4):510-5. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/74.4.510.


Background: In animal studies, sialic acid supplementation is associated with increases of gangliosides in the brain and improved learning ability. Only limited data are available on the sialic acid content of human milk and infant formulas.

Objective: We compared the concentrations of oligosaccharide-bound, protein-bound, and free sialic acid in milk from mothers of full-term and preterm infants and in a range of infant formulas.

Design: The milk from 20 and 14 mothers of full-term and preterm infants (mean gestational age: 31 +/- 3 wk), respectively, was collected at 4 stages of lactation (colostrum, transition, 1 mo, and 3 mo) and compared with 21 different infant formulas.

Results: Total sialic acid concentrations were highest in colostrum (x +/- SEM: 5.04 +/- 0.21 mmol/L in full term) and decreased by nearly 80% over the next 3 mo. Human milk from mothers of preterm infants contained 13-23% more sialic acid than did milk from mothers of full-term infants at 3 of the 4 lactation stages (P < 0.02). The sialic acid content of most formulas was <25% of that found in mature human milk (P < 0.01). Most of the sialic acid in the formulas ( approximately 70%) was bound to glycoproteins, whereas in human milk most sialic acid was bound to free oligosaccharides.

Conclusions: Human milk, including milk from mothers of preterm infants, is a rich source of oligosaccharide-bound sialic acid, which contrasts with the relatively small amounts found in infant formulas. The nutritional significance of sialic acid is presently unknown, but it is plausible that it is a conditional nutrient that contributes to sialic acid accretion in the brain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Australia
  • Colostrum / chemistry
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant Food / analysis*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Lactation / metabolism*
  • Milk, Human / chemistry*
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid / analysis*
  • Oligosaccharides / metabolism
  • Pregnancy


  • Oligosaccharides
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid