By Joseph O’Donnell
Milk, fermented products, cheese, butter, nonfat dry milk powder are the stuff of commodities. These products drive milk production, processing, marketing, promotion, economics, nutrition education and, to a degree, research in the areas of nutrition and product development. The dairy world turns on these products and consumer nutritional health depends on these products.
Research, for its part, works to add efficiency at all production levels including extending product lines and most importantly discovering new truth about the nutritional benefits of these products. Research naturally moves to exploring for new discoveries by looking at the fine details of the core product – milk.
It is not an exaggeration to compare the great detail required to put a man on the moon to the engineering that nature invested in designing and producing milk. It took us decades to get to the moon but it took nature hundreds of millions of years to get milk to where it is today.
Unraveling that bit of biology requires a lot of time and effort. So far several generations of scientists have been dedicated to the endeavor. The good news is that we are starting to see some results. The century before us focused on basic nutrition. These scientists established that milk is the most nutritionally complete food on earth. They went on to show how milk efficiently delivers this nutrition with all the nutrients being highly digestible. As a result, once populations increased their milk consumption, deficiency diseases were severely mitigated.
In the U.S. the official recommendation is to consume three servings of dairy products each day. This is based on science. This science started through funding from dairy farmer check-off dollars but rapidly spread to include much larger government funding because of its success and importance to national health and security. Countries around the world recognized this and started setting up similar dietary goals for milk. Notably, China with its 1.4 billion people has a current goal of 2 servings of dairy per day. What’s next?
Think again about the technology behind putting a man on the moon. Think about all the systems that must be developed and fully integrated. Not only the physics of building a rocket that will get there and back again but the physiology of maintaining a living body in the process.
Milk has to take a wide collection of essential nutrients from one living being and integrate them into a biochemical system that allows each nutrient to operate at top efficiency when ingested into another living being. That digestive system is a long process in itself so the milk has to be constructed to deliver specific benefits at specific places along the journey. This implies that something like a protein may have a certain effect early on in the digestive process but a very different effect further down the path. Furthermore, these molecules of milk will be doing more than delivering nutrients; they will be triggering physiological responses in the recipient – responses such as satiety, immunity and many others. Expand this to all the hundreds of different kinds of molecules in milk and you can see that comparing this to sending a man to the moon is not hyperbole.
I opened by talking about dairy commodities. The kind of research I describe above pushes our knowledge envelope of milk components to a place that doesn’t address commodities directly. The initial products to come from this type of current and near term research will be from those components of milk that have a marketable nutritional benefit and can be separated or at least enriched in some stream of milk processing. The companies who jump on this bandwagon could make a fortune. What about the initial investors, the dairy farmers?
While these new products will help create huge markets for specialized milk components, markets that will expand each year as new components are developed and new health benefits discovered, volume sales of dairy will likely remain with the commodities – foods affordable by the world’s population. The nutritional advantages uncovered by this research and initially marketed in specialized products will soon be recognized at the commodity level as well. My prediction is that the successful marketing of specialized dairy products will drive consumers from all countries to include commodity products as part of a daily diet. This is the ultimate return for the dairy farmers who believe profoundly in the wholesomeness of their product and who started this research ball rolling – steady, increased demand for milk, nature’s most perfect food.
■ Dr. Joseph O’Donnell is executive director of the California Dairy Research Foundation. He can be reached at 530-753-0681. Information on the California Dairy Research Foundation can be obtained from the organization’s web site at www.cdrf.org.