Thanks to the research and marketing efforts of the National Dairy Council, most Americans are familiar with the important nutritional role that milk and other dairy products play in a balanced diet, providing an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D.
Now, two recently launched milk products aim to up the ante, promising enhancements not through added vitamins or minerals, but through changes in milk's fat profile.
Horizon Organic now offers a product fortified with DHA, the omega-3 fatty acid that is increasingly recognized as crucial to brain, eye and heart health.
Meanwhile, Laguna Beach, Calif.-based SunMilk Dairy Co. has rolled out a brand of milk in Southern California that replaces the saturated fat in conventional milk with sunflower-oil-based monounsaturated fats, which are known to promote cardiovascular health.
“Ever since pasteurization was invented, making milk healthier has been about removing fat,” noted David Hibbard, a co-founder of SunMilk. However, recognizing that skim milk lacks the flavor and texture of 2% or whole milk, “we blend in 1% unsaturated fats — so there are some fats in the product, but they're good for your heart and good for your cholesterol.”
The product has proved popular in Australia, where it has been sold for a little more than a decade under the “Farmer's Best” brand. Hibbard noted that there, doctors often recommend the brand to patients with high cholesterol or heart problems.
The launch of each of these brands is a testament to the growing body of research focusing on how different types of fat are used by the body. Basically, mono- and polyunsaturated fats, as well as omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA, have been found to be essential to good health, while saturated fats and trans fats can slowly cause damage to the heart and the circulatory system. Consumers are becoming more and more aware of these distinctions.
“The whole negativity about saturated fats that started in the early 1990s really took hold with consumers,” said Elizabeth Tilak, nutrition research manager for WhiteWave Foods, parent of the Horizon Organic brand and subsidiary of Dallas-based Dean Foods. “As far as what are the good fats and how to incorporate good fats into your diet, I think that [consumers] are just starting to be aware of that.”
Much of the research into omega-3 fatty acids has focused on the crucial role they play in infant development. Many infant formulas have been enhanced with DHA since 2002, and Tilak noted that young mothers are also more likely than other consumers to have heard about omega-3s from their doctors. These factors made the new DHA-enhanced product a natural fit, she said, since mothers with young children are a prime demographic for the organics industry.