I had to smile when I saw the headline in buttery yellow on the cover of the June 12 Time magazine. “Eat Butter,” it flatly stated. The sub-headline was even better for dairy: “Scientists labeled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong.”

 Focusing on saturated fats, the article highlighted scientific research that challenges associations between saturated fat and heart disease risk. Specific to dairy, the article referenced recent research in which the saturated fats in dairy may have a protective role in relation to heart disease compared to other sources of saturated fat.

“The article illustrates how scientific research promoting the health benefits of dairy is being recognized by mainstream media,” said Mickey Rubin, vice president of nutrition research at Dairy Management Inc., primarily funded by dairy farmers through the checkoff program.

U.S. butter exports did not spike just because of this one article. But the story did get its share of global buzz on international news outlets and social media.

It also illustrated a larger point about dairy research. Food fads come and go but years of planning, investment, execution and patience are necessary to see an eventual payoff, domestically and overseas, from dairy research.

Whey protein research

That’s what’s happening with whey protein, thanks to the Whey Protein Research Consortium (WPRC) and the Dairy Research Institute (DRI). The consortium is an international partnership founded by the U.S. Dairy Export Council and DRI that now includes several private organizations supporting focused research to determine specific health benefits attributable to whey proteins.

Last year, we exported more than $1 billion of whey products and a recent study made possible by the diligent work of these organizations should only enhance future U.S. dairy sales. Funded by WPRC and published in the April issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, the study analyzed the scientific literature to date examining whey protein consumption and the effects on body composition. The analysis concluded that when used as a meal replacement, those who consumed whey protein lost on average 9.2 pounds compared to their starting weight. Further, combining resistance exercise with whey protein supplementation increased lean body mass 4.9 pounds, on average.

The results show whey protein’s unique ability to manage weight and build lean body mass. As governments fight global obesity, this is good news indeed for fitness buffs looking for every edge they can get and for baby boomers struggling to manage their weight.

But that’s not all. In May, the British Journal of Medicine published a study that found people starting anti-retro-viral therapy for HIV had a better prognosis when taking food supplements containing whey. This finding can make the case to policymakers that whey should be part of the standard of global care for fighting HIV.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Agency for International Development integrated nutrition priorities into its largest programming streams. That should expand the audience of those in government receptive to dairy science.

The ROI on science

Taken together, these research developments illustrate three principles about the return on investment of dairy science:

Invest for the long term. Founding the Whey Protein Research Consortium reflected the realization by DRI and USDEC that market growth can come from being more Warren Buffett than Gordon Gekko.

Research dairy-only benefits. Narrowly focusing on dairy provides a bigger bang for the buck than funding general health studies applying to not just dairy, but other food industries; Orange juice has encroached on milk through added calcium but you need dairy for whey protein.

Take the bad news with the good. Not every study will yield positive headlines. But over time, the good will outweigh the bad, validating what we all know: dairy is good for you in its many forms.

An example is the latest Time article. It essentially debunks its own reporting on fat that appeared in an influential cover story 20 years ago.

“Over time, if science continues to show beneficial effects of dairy it will drive demand, not only domestically, but on the export front,” said Rubin.

 The bottom line: science is on our side.