Growth and nitrogen and energy balances were studied with a combined technique of nutrient balance and indirect calorimetry measurement in two groups of eight very low birth weight infants fed pooled pasteurized human milk (HM) or cow's milk casein hydrolysate supplemented HM (HM-Pr). There was no difference in the amount of energy absorbed (91 +/- 17 kcal/kg/day with HM-Pr versus 95 +/- 8 with HM-P) or in the growth rate. The infants fed HM-Pr had a higher nitrogen intake (602 +/- 80 versus 395 +/- 64 mg/kg/day; p less than 0.001), urinary nitrogen excretion (160 +/- 64 versus 78 +/- 16 mg/kg/day; p less than 0.005) and nitrogen retention (326 +/- 32 versus 252 +/- 48 mg/kg/day; p less than 0.01). They also had increased plasma concentrations of essential amino acids, urea nitrogen, and total protein without metabolic imbalance. Energy expenditure was higher (58 versus 49 kcal/kg/day; p less than 0.005) and energy storage lower (33 versus 47 kcal/kg/day; p less than 0.05) with HM-Pr. In percent of weight gain, protein and fat accretion represented 12 and 14% in HM-Pr group versus 10 and 27% in HM group. Very low birth weight infants fed casein hydrolysate supplemented pooled HM achieved a growth rate and a weight gain composition similar to the fetus.