Superfood to the Rescue
by Pamela Accetta Smith
Senior Editor

Experts offer insights on the latest scientific studies revealing dairy’s power in health and nutrition.
Dairy Field rounded up a panel of experts to discuss the latest science surrounding dairy and affirm its role in overall wellness:
Peggy Biltz, chief executive officer, Dairy Council of California
Gregory D. Miller, executive vice president of science and innovation, Dairy Management Inc.
Gail Barnes, vice president of business development — fluid innovation, Dairy Management Inc.
Q: Dairy’s reputation as a “superfood” continues to grow, with new scientific studies revealing milk’s power in health and wellness. Dairy foods continue to expand functionally as carriers of omega-3s, plant sterols and other nutrients known to boost wellness and fight disease. How does new research underscore these benefits and support the dairy-health/wellness connection?
Biltz: Research on milk and dairy foods continues to be positive as connections are being made to more health benefits including weight management and aiding in the prevention of diabetes, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, cancer and osteoporosis. As research confirms these associations, the focus is shifting to identifying specific components in dairy foods that play a protective role. Calcium, vitamin D, CLA, branched-chain amino acids and whey protein are some of the components under investigation.
Research suggests, however, that consuming dairy foods in their intact form provide much greater benefits than consuming these components in isolation, suggesting there are synergistic effects between the nutrients, and/or that there are other components in dairy foods not yet identified that play a role in health and wellness.
Miller: Milk is the original functional food. Dairy’s contribution to a healthy diet has long been recognized and endorsed by health organizations ranging from the American Dietetic Association to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Medical Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians. The fact that the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans raised the recommended number of dairy servings from “two to three” to “up to three” each day clearly shows the consensus out there on the value of dairy foods in a nutritious and healthy diet.
Emerging data now links dairy consumption to an expanding list of health benefits, including reduced risk of osteoporosis and colorectal cancer, better oral health, muscle-building after exercise and maintenance of a healthy weight and blood pressure.
If Americans boosted their dairy consumption to three to four servings each day (up from the current average of 1.7 daily servings), experts estimate that our healthcare system could save approximately $214 billion over five years. These emerging health benefits are a value-add, because they build upon what we already know about the nutrient richness of dairy foods.
Q: What is the latest dairy wellness-related research?
Biltz: Vitamin D, in particular, is receiving attention for its potential health benefits ranging from protection against cancer, periodontal disease and multiple sclerosis, to improved immune function and cognitive performance. Fortified milk is the major source of vitamin D in the United States. Efforts are underway within the industry to fortify with vitamin D across the product line — including yogurt, cheese and other dairy products — so that the consumer can count on all dairy products, not just fluid milk, to deliver certain levels of vitamin D.
Miller: The biggest trend in foods and beverages these days is health and wellness. Nutrition scientists are investigating many potential links between dairy and wellness. For instance, consumption of dairy foods may reduce risk of metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of symptoms related to high triglycerides, low HDL, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and abdominal obesity, which increases risk for heart disease. Another exciting area is milk’s potential superiority as a replenishment beverage for athletes. Dairy protein appears to help build muscle mass when used as a recovery beverage after exercise, and it may help prevent sarcopenia, or age-related loss of muscle mass, in the elderly. Other research is investigating why dairy could be an ideal delivery vehicle for probiotics, as components in milk may turn on certain genes in probiotic bacteria, enhancing their activity and benefit to consumers.
Still other inquiries are looking at the possible role of dairy foods in reducing inflammation. It’s now believed that persons who are overweight or obese experience a higher level of inflammation, which may increase their risk of obesity-related diseases. While this research is still in the very early stages, the data indicate that dairy food consumption may have a role in reducing inflammation.
In dairy product and ingredient research, the Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) National Dairy Foods Research Center Program is responding to the health and wellness trend by funding new research and technologies that industry needs to respond to consumer demand for health and wellness products. For instance, we have an expert panel of researchers working on development of low-fat cheeses that taste great and function well.
The overall idea here is to help industry give consumers the dairy and dairy-based products they need — when, where and how they want them. DMI is leading the dairy industry to take a consumer-driven approach that will help identify and meet unmet consumer demand.
Q: What are the latest health benefits tied to dairy?
Biltz: The latest health benefits associated with consuming dairy foods are in conjunction with preventing insulin resistance, a pre-diabetic condition. In numerous studies, dairy and/or calcium consumption have been associated with reduction in risk of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. In addition, recent research has shown that following the DASH dietary pattern — a diet high in low-fat dairy products, fruits and vegetables — tends to reduce insulin resistance. With the increasing prevalence of obesity, type 2 diabetes rates are exploding and expected to reach epidemic levels within the next few years. Dairy foods will play a critical role in protecting against this disease, and the time is ideal as people are seeking to avoid medications and manage their health through diet and lifestyle choices. Best of all, most health benefits of dairy are reaped at levels that are consistent with the current recommendations of three servings per day.
Miller: When it comes to bone health, oral health, lowering high blood pressure, maintaining a healthy weight and reducing risk of colorectal cancer, the data that link dairy to health benefits are mature and well-documented. Now, emerging science is defining new health benefits that may be connected to dairy consumption, including reduced inflammation, improved digestive health and immunity thanks to probiotics, plus effective rehydration and lean muscle accretion after exercise. Further research is focused on potential benefits of saturated fat consumption. Researchers are investigating whether some short-chain fatty acids found in saturated fats may help ward off cancer. We are learning how ruminant trans fatty acids — that is, trans fats found in dairy products and beef — are different than industrially produced trans fats and could be neutral or even beneficial in terms of cardiovascular health.
Q: What are the current efforts being made to make dairy products more healthy?
Barnes: The growing health and wellness trend provides an enormous opportunity for the dairy industry to develop innovative products. According to the “Times and Trends Report” issued by IRI earlier this year, functional foods and beverages will play a significant role in the marketplace in the next 12 months. Consumers already trust dairy to be great-tasting and healthy, making it an ideal food for further fortification. The resulting new milk products — or “milk plus” products — add more good-for-you nutrients, such as plant sterols and omega-3s, to milk’s already nutrient-rich package of nine essential nutrients. Such value-added milks are targeted, customized products designed to address lifestyle needs. These innovative products give consumers what they want — when, where and how they want it.
Examples of innovative new dairy products containing omega-3s and/or plant sterols launched so far in 2007 include: Horizon Organic® Reduced Fat Milk Plus DHA;  Promise Activ™ Supershots from Unilever Bestfoods, a yogurt-based drink containing plant sterols in addition to omega-3’s; and Yoplait Kids™ Lowfat Yogurt, a spoonable yogurt. From baby boomers concerned about heart health to mothers seeking foods that promote kids’ growth and development, dairy foods with added omega-3’s have a spectrum of consumer appeal that stretches from “heart smart” to “a great start.”
Biltz: There are considerable efforts in researching, developing and marketing products that use dairy as a carrier for certain components. Sterols and stanols are being added to dairy to help reduce cholesterol levels; omega-3 fatty acids are added for their heart healthy effects; probiotics and prebiotics are fortified for their intestinal and immune benefits; and various vitamins and minerals such as iron, and vitamins A, C and E are being fortified to meet an individual’s specific needs. Throughout all of this it will be critical to continue to educate the consumer on the inherent and “added” health benefits of dairy foods, and to utilize point-of-purchase labeling to inform consumers of a product’s healthful components.
Q: How is all of this research influencing processor marketing efforts?
Barnes: Consumers are more interested in learning about product benefits than product ingredients. They would rather hear that a product will help their family by reducing cholesterol from dietary sources than know it contains plant sterols. The challenge for the dairy industry is to talk about benefits in ways allowed by regulations and the body of scientific evidence.
Manufacturers in other markets are leveraging a picture being worth a thousand words and are, for example, using visuals to convey benefits that are harder to express in words. An image of active, happy kids on the label can visually suggest a product’s health benefits ? especially as more packaging adopts a “photographic” look that leverages the power of images. Other examples of consumer outreach include Kroger® Active Lifestyle™ Fat Free Milk that is promoted as the first cholesterol-cutting milk available nationwide. Kroger’s Web site says, “Enjoying an 8-ounce serving of Kroger Active Lifestyle Fat Free Milk with two meals each day can help you reduce total cholesterol for a healthier heart.” The package for Horizon Organic® Reduced Fat Milk Plus DHA claims that it “helps support brain & eye health.” The Land O Lakes™ 1% Lowfat Cottage Cheese with Probiotics package states that the product “improves digestion.”
Q: Please update us on 3-A-Day — has the research changed, been revised, stayed the same?
Miller: It’s clear: Enjoying three servings of low-fat or fat-free milk or milk products every day as part of a healthy diet, as recommended by the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, improves the overall nutritional quality of the diet. Health professional organizations such as the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Dietetic Association and National Medical Association also recommend three servings of dairy a day. Sound science is the backbone of the 3-A-Day™ of Dairy nutrition education program.
As I mentioned earlier, new research continues to underscore the value of dairy in a healthy diet. For instance, a new study shows that people who drank milk after weight lifting built more muscle and lost more body fat than those who drank a soy- or carbohydrate-based beverage under the same conditions. Those findings give active people yet another reason to consume the recommended three daily servings of dairy foods.
We will continue to see research that tells us how consuming nutrient-rich dairy can help people live healthy lives.
Barnes: To that end, everybody, it seems, wants to get healthy and stay healthy — while still enjoying foods and beverages that taste great. The health and wellness trend is not just a blip on the food-o-meter — it’s a megatrend. In fact, more than 80 percent of Americans say they are currently consuming or would be interested in consuming foods or beverages for health and wellness benefits. Nutrient-rich milk and dairy are perfectly positioned for innovative health and wellness products that consumers truly want.