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Industry Innovation

The unique benefits of dairy

John Lucey

John Lucey, director of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contributes this column for Cheese Market News®.

The benefits of dairy are becoming increasingly obvious as studies continue to show that the vitamins, minerals and proteins in dairy offer a unique nutritional package. From weight loss and insulin control to muscle synthesis and more, research is proving that dairy can contribute to the diet in many positive ways.

Among the most exciting research is the work on whey proteins and muscle synthesis. High in branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) such as leucine, valine and isoleucine, dairy offers an excellent supply of essential amino acids. These amino acids are the building blocks of muscle proteins and are an important part of muscle recovery.

In particular, whey contains the highest amount of leucine found in food. Leucine is a very unique BCAA that has been directly linked to muscle protein synthesis. Leucine’s power is in its ability to “increase anabolic signaling to skeletal muscles” as discovered by Donald Layman and his associates at the University of Illinois-Urbana and the University of Tampa (Nutra Foods 2011, 10(2-3) 11-16). Layman’s research shows that while protein is key in the diet, not all proteins are equal. He proved that whey protein, because it is rich in leucine, is most effective for muscle synthesis and that consuming leucine in conjunction with physical activity can lead to greater muscle protein synthesis when compared with other proteins such as soy. So, while dairy ingredients such as whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate may be an added cost in food products, the price is well worth it when one considers the outstanding nutritional value and density associated with dairy proteins.

As high protein diets have grown in popularity, there also is growing nutritional research that explains how protein helps with weight management. Some of the potential benefits of higher protein diets include: increased weight loss, protection of skeletal muscle, reduced body fat, increase thermogenesis (energy associated with digestion of food), increased satiety (feeling full) and enhanced glycemic (insulin) regulation. Amino acids like leucine have recently been recognized as key metabolic signals that influence a range of these processes in our bodies. A balanced distribution of protein during the day (around 30 grams per meal) is now believed to be critical to stimulate protein synthesis, according to Layman.

Many groups can benefit from whey protein enriched products. This is especially true for the aging population in the United States, as many suffer from sarcopenia or the loss of muscle mass/function. Individuals looking for weight maintenance products can also benefit from whey protein thanks to its ability to increase anabolic signaling and provide satiety. Whey products are particularly popular with athletes, as whey protein provides the leucine levels recommended for muscle synthesis. CDR, for example, has worked with several companies on developing whey protein enhanced beverages. Some examples include our work with Country Oven’s Cherry de Lite Red Whey, and BadgerMax which are both currently being used by the University of Wisconsin Badger Athletic Department.

The story of dairy protein is certainly a positive one, but dairy has received negative attention in the past for its saturated fat content. The traditional diet-heart paradigm held that consumption of total fat and saturated fat raised total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, and that this in turn caused coronary heart disease (CHD).

The scientific community is increasingly disputing this traditional view. For example Peter Elwood, M.D., a researcher at Cardiff University, University Hospital of Wales and his colleagues, in a recent review article titled “The Consumption of Milk and Dairy Foods and the Incidence of Vascular Disease and Diabetes: An Overview of the Evidence” published in Lipids (2010, 45:925–939) concludes “there appears to be an enormous mis-match between the evidence from long-term prospective studies and perceptions of harm from the consumption of dairy food items.”

Researchers also are finding that some components of milkfat may be beneficial. Milkfat is comprised of about 70 percent saturated fat and 30 percent unsaturated. While saturated fat once had very negative connotation, there are now positive health messages associated with saturated short/medium chained fatty acids, such as butyric acid (anticancer) and lauric acid (antiviral, antibacterial). Milkfat also provides several essential fatty acids and phospholipids that are needed for the development of membranes and brain tissues. Dr. Michael Pariza from UW-Madison discovered conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in the late 1970s, and many studies have demonstrated that CLA may provide several important health benefits, including anticancer, reduced inflammation and body weight management properties. Milkfat is one of the main dietary sources of CLA.

The research into dairy fats and proteins has brought us important new understandings of dairy’s benefits, proving once again that continued dairy research is essential. Also, as the research community continues to learn more about dairy, it has become increasingly clear that dairy offers a complex and unique source of many vitamins, minerals, proteins and fats. In fact, according to the National Dairy Council, dairy foods make significant contribution to the availability/intake of essential nutrients including more than 50 percent of the necessary vitamin D and calcium, about 30 percent of the phosphorus, more than 25 percent of the riboflavin, more than 18 percent of the vitamin B12 and protein, more than 16 percent of the potassium and vitamin A, 15 percent of the zinc, and 13 percent of the magnesium. From its positive protein profile to its many nutrients, dairy provides a unique nutritional package that can be consumed in a wide variety of delicious products. These positive nutritional benefits guarantee that the demand for high-quality dairy proteins and products will continue to grow into the future. This also will require continued product innovation that will benefit both the dairy industry as well as consumers.


The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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