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Carotenoids are important bioactive substances in breast milk, the profile of which is seldom studied. This study aimed to explore the profile of carotenoids in breast milk and maternal/cord plasma of healthy mother–neonate pairs in Shanghai, China, and their correlation with dietary intake. Maternal blood, umbilical cord blood and breast milk samples from five lactation stages (colostrum, transitional milk and early-, mid- and late-term mature milk) were collected. Carotenoid levels were analysed by HPLC. Carotenoid levels in breast milk changed as lactation progressed (P < 0·001). β-Carotene was the primary carotenoid in colostrum. Lutein accounted for approximately 50 % of total carotenoids in transitional milk, mature milk and cord blood. Positive correlations were observed between five carotenoids in umbilical cord blood and maternal blood (P all < 0·001). β-Carotene levels were also correlated between maternal plasma and three stages of breast milk (r = 0·605, P < 0·001; r = 0·456, P = 0·011, r = 0·446; P = 0·013, respectively). Dietary carotenoid intakes of lactating mothers also differed across lactation stages, although no correlation with breast milk concentrations was found. These findings suggest the importance of exploring the transport mechanism of carotenoids between mothers and infants and help guide the development of formulas for Chinese infants as well as the nutritional diets of lactating mothers.
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