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Milk that benefits the wider food chain

Copyright: Guy Montag on Flickr by CC 2.0

When low fat milk is made, the ‘skimmed’ fat ends up back in the food chain – stealthily secreted into cakes, biscuits and creams. Hence, people in the UK mostly exceed the recommended intake of saturated fats, and dairy products are a major source of them. Yet milk is an excellent source of high quality protein and other nutrients such as calcium and vitamin B12.

To tackle this conundrum Professor Ian Givens, a food-chain nutritionist based at the University of Reading, has worked with colleagues from the university and a consortium of major industrial partners in research funded under BBSRC’s DRINC club. “We wanted to do something to replace saturated fats with other things that were likely to be better, such as mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids,” says Givens.

His project replaced fat in the cows’ diets with supplements such as linseed and rapeseed oil. This led to a milk product 4-6% lower in saturated fats than regular milk. Further studies with small numbers of cows and other novel feed supplements decreased saturates by up to 27%. However these strategies could not be used on commercial farms at present.

Data breakout

17% Proportion of the UK’s agricultural economic output each year derived from milk ( £4.6Bn in 2014)
24.9% Rate of adult obesity in the UK, which also has one of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease in the EU
80,000 tonnes Estimated fat removed from national diet if this innovation were applied to all UK milk

The milk is not sold as a niche product, but is the ‘new normal’ in milk sales at UK supermarket Marks and Spencer. Known as Better For You Milk, it has become one of the most visible pillars of M&S’s corporate food sustainability plan Plan A.

The milk is has a lower carbon footprint too. Studies at Reading show that using oilseeds in the cows’ diet leads to a marked reduction in the amount of methane the cow produces per litre of milk.

And the benefits don’t stop there. Using home-grown feed supplements meant dairies were able to switch from using palm oil, which comes with environmental concerns if not sourced sustainably. “This equated to over 1000 tonnes less palm oil per year, and led to improved health and welfare in the cows,” says Claire Hughes, Head of Nutrition and Science at Marks and Spencer Plc.

These sentiments are echoed by Bethan Parsley of industrial partner Arla. “Working on the DRINC project enabled Arla UK to collaborate with leading academics and to contribute to research that is likely to inform future dairy innovation.”

Givens and his team scooped the 2015 BBSRC Overall Innovator of the Year award for this work, as an example of how collaborative work between academia, industry, farmer and retailer can produce multiple benefits while also developing the UK bioeconomy.

Read more in the in-depth feature: New adventures in high street milk.

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Header image copyright: Guy Montage on Flickr by CC 2.0