New knowledge could lead to improved hypoallergenic infant formulas

Wednesday 10 Jun 20


Katrine Lindholm Bøgh
Senior Researcher, Head of Research Group
National Food Institute
+45 35 88 70 92

Heat-treatment of cow’s milk proteins for use in infant formula reduces the proteins’ ability to induce an allergic reaction without altering their ability to build tolerance, according to the findings of a study conducted at the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark. The findings could lead to the formulation of effective and safe infant formula that can prevent cow's milk allergy in infants.

There is much discussion about which type of infant formula is best for infants who are not fully breastfed and are at high risk for developing a cow's milk allergy.

Most often, the choice falls on extensively hydrolyzed products, since—compared to conventional infant formulas—they are far less likely to induce the development of a cow's milk allergy. At the same time, however, they are not very good at building the child's tolerance to cow's milk.

A PhD study from the National Food Institute contributes knowledge, which can help determine the most suited infant formula, if the aim is to prevent the child from developing an allergy to cow’s milk proteins.

Katrine Bækby Graversen’s animal studies show that heat-treatment of cow’s milk proteins, which are used in infant formulas, reduces the proteins’ ability to induce an allergic reaction without altering their ability to build tolerance to cow’s milk. 

Based on the results, heat-treatment may be a promising method to produce effective and safe infant formulas designed to prevent cow’s milk allergy in infants.

Changed uptake in the intestine

Katrine Bækby Graversen has also investigated the mechanisms underlying the reduced allergenicity of the heat-treated products upon intake. She has done this e.g., by measuring the intestinal uptake of the cow’s milk proteins.

Heat-treatment causes the milk proteins to unfold and aggregate. The studies indicate that the proteins’ modified structure changes the route of uptake of the milk proteins in the intestine.

This may explain why heat-treated milk proteins cause milder allergic reactions compared with untreated milk proteins. The results emphasize the need to study the intestinal uptake of proteins when new protein ingredients are developed and tested. 

Read more 

The study of the effect of heat-treating protein ingredients for use in infant formula is described in further detail in a scientific article in the journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy: Cow’s milk allergy prevention and treatment by heat-treated whey—A study in Brown Norway rats.

Read more about the ways in which the National Food Institute develops and improves on strategies to prevent, manage and treat food allergies on the institute’s website.


About the development of food allergies

  • When we eat different foods, our immune system normally ensure that we develop tolerance towards various proteins in the foods. We do not fully understand the reasons why some people do not develop tolerance to certain proteins in their diet but instead become allergic to them. However, a lack of tolerance is associated with both genetic and environmental factors. 
  • Cow’s milk allergy is the most prevalent food allergy among children. Cow’s milk allergy among infants has been linked to reduced growth. Furthermore, many children who suffer from cow’s milk allergy as infants develop other allergies later in life.