Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Discovery brings replacement closer to irreplaceable

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Making formula milk more like Mum’s could provide a means to not only improve its nutritional profile, but also prove to be a valuable formula additive in an industry with a global value of US$60 billion a year. Richard Rennie spoke to AgResearch scientists developing a component that makes infant powder almost as good as the real thing.
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Making formula milk more like Mum’s could provide a means to not only improve its nutritional profile, but also prove to be a valuable formula additive in an industry with a global value of US$60 billion a year. Richard Rennie spoke to AgResearch scientists developing a component that makes infant powder almost as good as the real thing.

Working in the area of infant nutrition and formulation, AgResearch scientist Dr Caroline Thum points out much of infant formula production requires processors to take out some of milk’s best components, and then try to add them back in for the final product.

Typically, infant milk processing has bovine fatty acids replaced with non-bovine fatty acids to try and replicate the fat’s ratio, and resemblance to human fatty acids as close as possible. 

That usually involves adding vegetable oils as the fat source. 

“But typically, the problem with infant formula has been infants can end up constipated and in discomfort with these fatty acids not being digested in the right part of the gut. They combine with calcium to produce a ‘calcium soap’ that cannot be absorbed by their digestive system.”

Removing the bovine fats also removes an invaluable component of that fat, known as phospholipids, a type of lipid fat proven to be a vital building block for brain development. These will normally be also added back in lesser form, sourced from soy sources.

But research has shown the gap between mother’s milk with high phospholipid levels and formula replacement does contribute to a gap in IQ between breast fed and formula fed infants.

But the scientific team’s discovery of a nutritional oil very similar to the fat found in breast milk could prove the magic component that enables infant formula processors to get much closer to replicating the value of breast milk and include those bovine phospholipids.

With its source a highly guarded secret, combining it with phospholipids found in butter milk means the blend can be added to infant formula. 

Its presence means babies receive the fatty acids in a more digestible format that ensures better fat and calcium absorption, along with the benefits of phospholipids for their brain development.

The next step in the research is to ‘feed’ the combination through an in-vitro digestion simulator that models a human infant’s digestive tract, right down to the inevitable nappy filling result all parents are familiar with.

This work will confirm how well the new combination is digested, compared to conventional infant formula.

The work has received $1 million from the Endeavour Fund over the coming three years and the researchers are collaborating with Massey University, Monash University and an unnamed corporate. 

They are hoping by the end of the lab-based trials they will have amassed sufficient proof a commercial additive could be possible, subject to human trials.

“We are optimistic our product will have application across a range of formula types, including as an additive to sheep and goat’s milk powders,” says senior scientist Dr Simon Loveday.

The new component also brings the potential to significantly increase the value of infant powder.

“From the analysis we have done of ‘basic’ versus enhanced powders, it could mean a considerable premium above what standard powder is worth now. There is a market there prepared to pay a premium,” says Loveday.

Thum says potential may also exist to deploy the component in other nutritive products, such as those fed to the elderly.

“We know that as you grow older, there is a tendency for digestive systems to go back in terms of enzyme activity to be closer to an infant’s digestive system, so food with a lipid profile for the elderly would be suitable. 

“Also, research indicates phospholipid intake later in life can help with reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Typically, all dairy products other than butter, which has them removed in buttermilk by-product, will have phospholipids in them.

“The funding allows us to explore a new high-value opportunity for New Zealand’s primary sector and contribute to NZ’s global reputation as a source of naturally healthy foods,” Loveday says.

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