Friday 6 March 2015

Natural superfood: is it time to regulate the sale of breast milk?

Breast milk
If bodybuilders and others are turning to it as a natural supplement and superfood, is it time to start regulating the sale of breast milk?

“Are you actually going to drink that?” I asked as I sat in my north London flat watching my friend dangle a plastic zipper bag of human breast milk in front of me.
My friend was enthusiastic about the prospect of drinking the milk, as he explained: “[The breast milk supplier] has now started bringing milk to my work. It helps me sleep. I’m just experimenting on myself the way I have always done.”
Then he did it. He downed a pint of human breast milk in one.

The breast milk boom

Only The Breast (OTB), dubbed the “Craigslist of breastmilk”, is the site my friend purchased his milk from. Set up in 2009 by couple Glenn and Chelly Snow, it bills itself as a community facilitating the market exchange of breast milk between willing participants. Since its launch the business has received considerable traction and has expanded from the US into Europe.
OTB was primarily created to enable mothers to sell excess breast milk affordably to other mothers who are unable to breastfeed. Buying milk from long-established milk banks in the US is costly and OTB linked mothers with excess milk with those in need of it.
However, it seems that altruism isn’t the only motivation of sellers on OTB. In the US some mothers claim to make $20,000 (£13,000) a year from the sale of their breast milk. At the time of writing, selling listings reveal no mothers in the UK are willing to donate their milk for free to other mothers, but 31 are willing to sell their milk to men.
Breast milk, it turns out, has something of a reputation as a superfood within bodybuilding circles for building muscle and maintaining strength. It contains metabolic fuels and the raw materials needed to aid tissue growth and development, such as fatty acids, amino acids and minerals.
In a world rife with supplements, some consider breast milk just another if not more natural way to build muscle. As my friend said: “I don’t believe in supplements, but what is more natural than a mother’s breast milk?”

An opportunity for entrepreneurial mums

Breast milk is classified as a food by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and is not, in theory, illegal to buy or sell. However, there have been few attempts to sell it to the public and its sale banned on Ebay and Craigslist. 
In 2011 the Covent Garden restaurant TheIce Creamists launched an ice-cream made with breastmilk called “Baby Gaga”. It was an instant hit, selling out before lunch on the day after going on sale. However, despite the milk being screened for diseases and pasteurised, Westminster council confiscated the ice-cream over health and safety concerns.
So just how popular is breast milk in the UK? I spoke with Miriam (not her real name), a mother who sells breast milk through OTB. She told me she makes about £100 per week and is quite selective about who she sells to. “I absolutely encourage people to drink it for the health benefits,” she said. Despite the health benefits claimed by breast milk advocates, however, sellers aren’t required to take any medical tests and there is a small chance of breast milk carrying sexually transmitted diseases.
In the milk market more generally, an increasing number of consumers are choosing to ditch dairy as part of a movement towards more plant-based foods, with plant-based milk sales up 155% between 2011 and 2013. Equally, as animal welfare concerns become more prevalent, some are questioning the ethics of large-scale dairy production.
If regulated and sold to the public, Miriam believes it would “help reduce the stigma around breast milk and eventually encourage women to breastfeed in public without fear”. This issue was thrown into the limelight in December when Louise Burns was asked to cover up while feeding her 12-week-old baby in London’s luxury hotel Claridge’s.

Is breast best, or just weird?

While some people swear by it and there have even been reports of people turning to breast milk to
 ease the effects of chemotherapy, the effects of drinking it aren’t entirely clear.Advocates like my friend believe breast milk is the most natural thing on the planet. However, there is no escaping the darker side of the breast milk black market. As Miriam explained: “Most of the men who contact me want to drink milk directly from my breast, which I am against”. A quick glance at the OTB website reveals men offering £20 to be fed from directly from the breast.
Although there is nothing in the food hygiene regulations specifically prohibiting the sale or supply as food of human breast milk, a spokesperson for FSA said it would advise against anyone buying and consuming human breast milk. “A food business supplying or selling human breast milk would be required to prove the milk had been collected and handled hygienically and the product was free from harmful viruses and bacteria. The FSA’s view is that it would be very difficult for a food business to demonstrate the safety of such a product.”
Maybe breast milk is just the latest superfood fad targeted at those wanting to get that little bit extra out of their body and mind in a culture where people are always seeking a competitive edge. Or perhaps the rising popularity of drinking breast milk is a symptom of a societal shift away from dairy produced by other species.
Perhaps in 10 years we will see regulated breast milk readily for sale in supermarkets as society becomes more open-minded. It might remain a fringe activity or it could become a regular thing that mothers do to generate extra income during maternity leave.
In the meantime, the “breast milk men” will continue to meet mothers on street corners, in pubs and outside train stations in the search of their next fix.
The food hub is funded by The Irish Food Board. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled ‘brought to you by’. Find out more here.

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