Levels of polyphenols and phenolic metabolites in breast milk and their association with plant-based food intake in Hong Kong lactating women

Food Funct. 2021 Dec 13;12(24):12683-12695. doi: 10.1039/d1fo02529e.


Dietary polyphenols are phytonutrients exhibiting multiple health benefits in humans including those in infants. However, data on breast milk (poly)phenolic composition are limited, especially among Asian populations. This study aimed to assess the levels of dietary polyphenols and their microbial-derived metabolites in the breast milk of Hong Kong lactating women, and how maternal diet correlated with the phenolic composition in breast milk. Breast milk samples from 89 healthy Hong Kong lactating women (aged 19-40 years) were collected. Maternal intake of plant-based foods and polyphenols was estimated through 3-day dietary records and the Phenol-Explorer database. Twelve commonly consumed polyphenols including their microbial-derived metabolites in breast milk were quantified using an optimized and validated UHPLC-MS/MS method. The effect of maternal intake on breast milk phenolic levels was then examined via the Pearson correlation test. The mean concentrations of individual phenolic compounds ranged from 5.1 nmol L-1 (chlorogenic acid) to 731.5 nmol L-1 (3,4-dihydroxybenzoic acid). Despite suboptimal intake of fruits and vegetables among our participants, breast milk phenolic levels were comparable to those of foreign populations. Significant correlations were found between dietary intake and multiple phenolics, particularly legume and daidzein (r = 0.33, P = 0.001), and tea and epicatechin (r = 0.30, P = 0.03). Regarding phenolic metabolites, 3,4-dihydroxyphenylacetic acid was significantly correlated with several polyphenols, particularly quercetin (r = 0.34, P = 0.002), and equol was exclusively correlated with daidzein (r = 0.46, P < 0.001). Our findings support that intake of plant-based foods significantly affects breast milk phenolic composition. Future investigation on the bioavailability and health outcomes in infants is warranted to substantiate the transferability of these bioactive phytonutrients from mother to child through lactation, and to promote maternal intake of polyphenol-rich foods.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Diet / methods*
  • Female
  • Fruit / metabolism*
  • Hong Kong
  • Humans
  • Lactation / metabolism
  • Milk, Human / chemistry*
  • Phenols / analysis
  • Phenols / metabolism
  • Polyphenols / analysis*
  • Polyphenols / metabolism*
  • Vegetables / metabolism*


  • Phenols
  • Polyphenols