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Are lactation cookies just cookies?

Lactation cookies are purported to provide breastfeeding moms with a boost in their milk production. A recent study put these claims to the test.

Wishful thinking can sometimes trump science. With “breast is best” echoing in their heads, and too few hours of sleep, new mothers may latch onto some seductive propositions about boosting their breast milk supply.

Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and the World Health Organization all agree that breast milk is the best food for newborns, with the recommendation that infants be exclusively breastfed for the first six months. However, 44% of mothers report ceasing breastfeeding during this crucial time because there’s “not enough milk.”

Enter the lactation cookie, a tasty snack that claims to boost milk production in breastfeeding mothers. A quick search turns up millions of hits supporting the use of these treats. From beautifully packaged pre-portioned products to articles outlining the magic of these “superhero ingredients,” the premise is simple: cookies for mom equals more milk for baby!

Or so they say. Many posts making bold claims about these products come from personal blogs or even websites selling the cookies themselves. Scientists are more skeptical. Are these products preying on new parents? Or do they live up to the hype?

Lactation cookies contain ingredients that stimulate milk production, called galactagogues. These can be synthetic or herbal, but both kinds are expected to induce, maintain, or increase milk production by mediating hormonal pathways in the body. Synthetic galactagogues come with strong scientific evidence that they do just that. Their mechanism has been well-defined, tested, and they are prescribed to aid with lactation. Herbal or plant-based ones, on the other hand, lack the same proof yet are advertised with the same claims. The galactagogues found in our beloved cookies are — you guessed it — not synthetic. Some common ingredients include oats, brewer's yeast, flaxseed, and fenugreek. While the use of herbal galactagogues is quite common, they are almost always based on cultural traditions or anecdotal claims. And just because many people are doing it doesn’t mean it works.

A 2020 Cochrane review revealed that the published papers assessing the efficacy of herbal galactagogues have many limitations including small sample size, incomplete reporting, imprecise measurements, and an overall lack in rigour. The most conclusive finding is that better research needs to be done on the pharmacology, efficacy, and safety of herbal galactagogues before we can decide whether they work.

Most recently, a 2023 article from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition took a jab at these claims with a randomized controlled trial of 176 participants. These lactating parents were divided into two groups, one consumed lactation cookies while the other ate conventional cookies over a one-month period. Various methods were used to measure the outcomes: a milk production rate using hospital-provided equipment, perceived milk sufficiency, and lactation self-efficacy scores. Simply put, the researchers assessed how much milk these parents were producing and how they felt about it. Lo and behold, there was no significant difference in any of these metrics between the lactation cookie group and the control group. So, according to this study, lactation cookies are no better than regular cookies. At the end of the paper, the authors remind readers that this paper focuses on one specific brand of lactation cookies and should not be extrapolated to others. So where does this leave us? As author, Dr. Michelle Cardel, put it, “It shifts the burden of proof to those who want to claim that [lactation cookies], in general, are or might be effective for all.”

With a strong desire to do what’s best for one’s child, it’s easy to turn to appealing products and buy into too-good-to-be-true claims. Nutritionally, there’s not much harm in having these cookies even if they don’t work. But some advertisers take claims to the extreme, prescribing cookie quantities with high price tags, leaving new parents with false hope and the unnecessary cost of adding something else to their plates, literally.

The need for more research might not be what parents want to hear. But that’s just how the cookie crumbles.


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