This article originally appeared on VICE Spain.
My friend Marina attaches the suction cup of the breast pump to her nipple and presses the button. The mechanical noise from the pump mixes with the sounds of advertising executives having lunch. Marina has a two-year-old daughter who's starting to wean, and I've come by her office to have lunch with her and drink some of her breast milk.
Breast milk is food for babies, of course, but if some—not necessarily reliable—media outlets are to believed, it's also a life-affirming, youth-restoring nectar for adults. There are claims that drinking it can improve your skin, work wonders for your immune system, help build muscle, and can even be used as contact solution. And, apparently, it tastes great too. If it's not coming out of your own nips, you can find it on websites like Onlythebreast, where new mothers go to earn some extra cash by selling their surplus milk. Mostly to other parents who can't or won't feed their babies with their own breast milk, but also to adults who drink it for themselves. Of course, a portion of those people drink it because they get off on it in some way, but others drink the precious fluid because of its alleged health benefits.
I decided to find out if drinking this sweet juice of life would do wonders for me too, by having some of Marina's every morning at breakfast, for a week.
Marina wants to slowly stop breastfeeding so she has some milk left—and she swears it doesn't mean her baby will starve. As the pump sucks Marina's nipple, milk starts dripping into the container connected to the machine. After about 15 minutes, it's almost filled. When she puts it on the table, I give it a thorough inspection. It looks like very skimmed milk. I still feel like I'm robbing a child of its meal, but Marina insists that she has more than enough.
With some apprehension, I take a sip. The milk is warm and kind of sweet—it reminds me of very watery horchata. It's not so different from oat milk or rice milk, except for the aftertaste, which assures you immediately that you're drinking something that came out of a mammal. When I give her a look that says, "Oy, I just drank your breast milk," she smiles at me. She tells me that she has drunk her own breast milk many times—she has even cooked with it. "I make so much milk that I don't know what to do with it," she says. "It's too much for the baby, and I feel awful throwing it away."
Adults drinking breast milk is hardly a new phenomenon. The ancient Egyptians are said to have used it to treat wounds, for example. Then there's the exemplary story of Roman Charity—of a woman, Pero, who secretly breastfed her incarcerated father Cimon to save him from starvation. And one guy was even made a saint because of breast milk; the Catholic Saint Bernard was still a fresh-faced 12th-century monk when the bishop of Chalon visited his abbey, and the abbot asked Bernard to do a sermon. That made him very nervous—as he wasn't a born orator—and after praying on it for a night, the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a dream to give him the gift of eloquence by squirting her breast milk in his eye or his mouth—religious accounts are not entirely clear on this.
And now it's my turn. My first sip is as fresh off the teat as can be expected given the fact that I'm not Marina's daughter, but the other milk I take from Marina has been frozen over the last few months. I keep it in a portable cooler—six glass jars, each labeled with the date of extraction.
The first few days I drink it neat, as one's supposed to drink a pure elixir of eternal youth. I feel more energetic, more lucid, and purified. I am not as exhausted as I usually am after two hours of Pilates. That feeling fades when I meet Alba Padró—breastfeeding advisor, IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant), and co-founder of lactation app LactApp. She reminds me that placebos are a hell of a drug.
The health benefits attributed to breastmilk are real, she maintains, but only for infants. However, "it's true that breast milk can alleviate the effects of chemotherapy, so some people drink it during their treatment." But the fact that drinking breastmilk is on the rise in the bodybuilding community is based on a misconception, she says. "It's highly unlikely that the energy people feel after drinking breast milk is actually derived from it." Human milk, Padró explains, has very low protein levels because human babies grow very slowly. "Milk from a cow, a hare, or even a mouse has so much more nutrients for adults than milk from a human woman," she says. "I can imagine breast milk could possibly help athletes to recover certain minerals, but you could do that with other drinks or mixes, too. I think it's just a trend; there's no scientific basis for it. Of course breast milk is a superfood, but only for infants."
I may have lost my blind faith in the health benefits of drinking breast milk as a grown woman, but I'm still determined to have a glass every morning. It's not the same, though. On the fourth day, I just pour the milk in my coffee and drink it in a hurry, burning my tongue.
I'm in a hurry, because I'm late for my meeting with Marga Cáceres. Marga spent a year having chemotherapy to treat breast cancer—which she fortunately seems to have overcome now. During the treatment, she took a daily dose of 100 ml of breastmilk. "Chemo came with some horrific side effects—nausea, a constantly upset stomach, loss of my appetite. That all disappeared when I started drinking breast milk. It might have been a coincidence, but the effects of the chemo weren't half as bad as they were before," Marga tells me. She bought the milk from an acquaintance of a friend. "The seller promised me she had more than enough milk and could use the money. I didn't really consider whether it was right or wrong—it was just what I needed in that situation."
For almost a year, Marga bought breastmilk irregularly from her provider, depending on what stage her chemotherapy was at. She paid about $15 for a daily dosage, 20 days a month, which amounts to more than $300 a month. Marga tells me that the black market in Spain is growing. Apparently, there are official, legal breast milk banks, but access to these banks is restricted to people who are feeding babies. Anyone who wants to buy breast milk for another reason has to do so illegally. The official milk banks guarantee their milk is free of disease, bacteria, and additives, but there's no such guarantee for milk acquired through unregulated online or offline networks. For instance, studies have found that unregulated milk can be dangerous because it can be contaminated with bacteria or diluted with water or cow milk.
Another risk factor is that as a bodily fluid, breast milk can carry a plethora of diseases—HIV, syphilis, hepatitis, or human T-lymphotropic virus, which can cause cancer. So before I started drinking Marina's milk, I discussed this risk with her—and subsequently found myself in the uncomfortable situation of asking someone to do some health tests and show me the reports. I hadn't done that in a long time—and never with a dear friend.
On the last two days of my week of drinking breast milk, I knew that it had all basically been for nothing. I couldn't for the life of me throw out the last two milk jars I had, so I decided to warm them both up and add two tablespoons of cocoa to them. I sat on the windowsill looking outside while sipping my hot chocolate. It tasted great and had been as cheap as it comes. Out on the street, a toddler wearing a tracksuit passed by in a stroller, pushed along by his father. The baby was sucking from a bottle and seemed to glare disapprovingly at me. I jumped up from the window and quickly retreated to my kitchen. Whatever breast milk does for an adult, drinking it still feels like you're stealing from a baby.