Back before Christmas I watched The Story of Stuff, after Late Bloomer recommended it. It’s a 20-minute video that talks about the environmental impact of consumption, as well as some of the health repercussions of our manufacturing processes. The thing that stood out for me, and that caused me to go back and read the script, was this quote:
Do you know what is the food at the top of the food chain with the highest levels of many toxic contaminants? Human breast milk.
What? I was flabbergasted. I know a lot about breastfeeding, and I had never heard this. I have heard reports here and there about toxins in breast milk, but I’d certainly never heard that it’s the most contaminated food. I know all about the benefits offered by breastfeeding, to babies and to mothers. I know that it helps prevent cancer, obesity, and allergies. I know that virtually every public health organization in the world recommends breastfeeding as the best choice. How can human milk be toxic? Annie Leonard, the presenter, was holding a sign that said “Breast is Best”, but I still cringed a little, worried that this would dissuade mothers from nursing their babies.
So I did a little research. Basically, the long and short of it is that many toxins accumulate in fatty tissues. When we eat, we ingest and store whatever toxins are in our food. This is amplified particularly when we eat animal fat, and even more so when we eat the meat of predators such as marine animals, because animals are also storing toxins. When we’re nursing we use up our fat stores, and the accumulated toxins end up in our milk. Because babies are small and milk is fatty, they’re getting a relatively high toxic load. Higher than formula-fed babies, since the fats in formula are actually plant-based.
Of course, there’s a catch. Babies are also exposed to toxins prenatally, through the placenta. So even if you choose to formula feed, you’re not going to able to avoid exposing your baby to toxins. They’re in you, and human babies still gestate inside human women. Studies indicate that breast milk offers protection against the harmful effects of toxic chemicals. Not to mention the cases of formula contamination, which are potentially much more serious than exposure to toxins via breast milk. Unequivocally, breastfeeding is still the best choice.
Why is it that after all of my reading and research about breastfeeding, the high presence of toxic compounds in breast milk was still news to me? There are a couple of reasons. First, many breastfeeding advocates don’t want to talk about this for precisely the same reason that I wouldn’t. They’re worried that mothers will choose not to breastfeed once they learn about toxins in human milk. Second, there is a general lack of awareness and little consensus about the toxins themselves, many of which continue to be in wide use. There are politics at play here, and few clear answers.
So, where does this leave us? How can we reduce the level of toxins in our bodies, and by extension our babies’ exposure? La Leche League has a great article here that outlines why breastfeeding is still far superior, and how to minimize your exposure to contaminants. And the organization Making our Milk Safe also has some great information.
I, of course, will continue to breastfeed. And I encourage others to do the same, if they can possibly manage it. I also encourage everyone to educate and inform themselves about the products we use, and the chemicals they contain. We owe it to our kids, who are bearing the brunt of our choices. After all we all want the best for them, no matter how we choose to feed them.