Human breast milk is the gold standard for infant feeding and the best possible nourishment a new-born could have. Breastfeeding is the natural way to provide optimal nutritional, immunological and emotional nurturing for the healthy growth and development of infants. Human milk is a complex and dynamic biofluid comprised of many hundreds to thousands of distinct bioactive structures, among which one of the most abundant substances are the non-conjugated complex carbohydrates referred to as human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs).
Due to their structural diversity and abundance, HMOs possess many beneficial biological functions. In order to understand human milk composition and HMO functions, state-of-the-art glycomic methods are inevitable. The industrial, large scale chemoenzymatic production of the most abundant HMOs became a reality in the last years and it evokes the need for straightforward and genuine analytical procedures to monitor the synthetic process and the quality of the products. It is obvious, that HMOs represent the next breakthrough in infant nutrition, as the addition of HMOs (such as 2′-fucosyllactose or lacto-N-neotetraose) to infant- and follow-on formulas, processed cereal-based food and baby foods for infants and young children etc. will revolutionize this field. This review highlights the potential applications of HMOs in the (bio)pharmaceutical industry, also summarizes the analytical methods available for the characterization of HMOs. An overview of the structure and function of HMOs along with their determination methods in complex matrices are provided. Various separation methods including liquid- and gas chromatography and capillary electrophoresis for the characterization and novel approaches for the quantitation of HMOs are discussed.