New milk research centre to get €20m


Milk has a wealth of health-giving properties and a new milk research centre plans to find and exploit these in new 'functional' foods, writes Claire O'Connell.

YOU MIGHT take that litre of milk in your fridge for granted, but it contains some hidden treasures that, when used in the right way, could help boost health and protect against infection, heart disease and even obesity.

These special ingredients are in the sights of a new National Functional Foods Research Centre announced last week, which is to receive €20 million in funding through Enterprise Ireland over the next five years.

"A functional food is a food that contains some functional ingredient that serves a purpose beyond supplying nutrients," explains Gerald Fitzgerald, professor of food microbiology at University College Cork and interim chief executive of the new centre.

"The term has come to imply that it is related to some aspect of health, and functional foods are really targeted at keeping healthy people healthy, and reducing the risk of developing illness," Fitzgerald says.

The new centre - which links the dairies Glanbia Nutritionals, Dairygold Food Ingredients, Carbery and Kerry Ingredients Ireland with researchers at UCC, UCD, UL and Teagasc - plans to isolate beneficial "bioactives" from milk and add them to other food products, such as yogurts, spreads and infant formula.

Many of the functional ingredients will be derived from the proteins in milk, particularly by chopping large proteins into smaller subunits called peptides, explains Fitzgerald.

Certain peptides can act as satiety factors, making a person feel fuller, faster, and adding them to foods could be a step in the fight against obesity, he notes.

Meanwhile, other peptides have anti-bacterial properties: "We are looking at preventing infection - it can be anything from serious infections like C difficile and Staph aureus, then you have [other] infections such as dental caries right through to tummy upsets, which are not devastating but they have an impact on quality of life."

The carbohydrates in cow's milk can also be treated to form prebiotics, which favour the growth of beneficial bacteria in our guts, says Fitzgerald. And milk contains fats called CLAs which are thought to help provide the body with health-boosting omega-3 fatty acids.

So if milk is bursting with health-promoting ingredients, why not just drink it straight?

"The [beneficial ingredients] are naturally present in milk, but not necessarily in ways that they are available," explains Fitzgerald. "Also if you take them in regular milk you have to take them at the level they are naturally in. Whereas if you use them as an ingredient you can modulate the levels to optimise the effect."

Researching the basic science and then carrying out human intervention studies will also help to ensure the functional ingredients do what they say on the tin, he adds. "We want to bring a high level of rigour to all of these claims - the broad functional food industry historically has been damaged by the laxity of rigour and clinical verification of the claims made," he says.

He also sees the new centre as a platform for exploring the complexities of the health areas they seek to address, and reckons that innovative discoveries lie in wait.

But what about the €20-million spend on functional food research at a time of cutbacks?

It's an investment we need to make to keep the Irish food industry competitive, according to Dr Paul Roben of Enterprise Ireland.

"It's investing in the future of the food industry, and that is the biggest indigenous industry in the country," he says. "So we can't afford not to invest in it."