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Posted 05 December 2008

Improving our diet by changing the diet of cows - lowered saturated fat content of milk could save thousands of lives

Scientists have improved the unsaturated fat content of milk by changing the feeding regimes of dairy cows. This new discovery can be used to reduce the amount of saturated fat in normal diets, and in turn lower the risks of people suffering from health conditions like coronary heart disease which are influenced by diet.

Currently, obesity costs the EU an estimated €32.8 billion each year. According to the latest Department of Health Report, 66% of Irish adults are overweight with close to 25% per cent being defined as obese (Dietary Habits of the Irish Population, 2008). And it is estimated that 50% of Europeans will be obese by 2050.

Milk and dairy products represent the single largest source of dietary saturated fat (SFA) in EU countries, including Ireland. However, a simple public health strategy to reduce the intake of milk and dairy products ‘would ignore the fact that these foods also supply approximately 30% of dietary monounsaturated fats in many EU countries and are key sources of other important nutrients including vitamin B12 and calcium’, argues Professor Ian Givens from the Nutritional Sciences Research Unit at the University of Reading, and one of the principal scientists on the EU Lipgene programme.

“Our research set out to discover ways of reducing the amount of saturated fat in the average diet, by investigating methods of lowering the saturated fat content of milk fat, rather than reducing the dietary intake of milk products,” explains Professor Givens.

“We decreased the levels of saturates in milk fat by including rapeseed supplements high in a monounsaturated fatty acid in the diet of the dairy cows. This has the added advantage that the milk fat has increased amounts of monounsaturated fats,” explains Professor Givens.

“If consumers were to switch to these new food products, we estimate that as many as 15,000 early deaths from heart disease and stroke across the EU could be saved each year,” says Professor Givens. “Further, research has shown that whilst many consumers are not aware of what these modified food products are, many are already consuming such products on a daily basis, and may therefore be willing to switch from conventional milk to the modified milk.”
At the Lipgene conference on 05 December 2008, Professor Michael Gibney from University College Dublin and the coordinator of the Lipgene project called upon EU policy makers to evaluate the evidence presented by the Lipgene project - ‘to analyse both the cost and health benefits that these products could provide, and to decide how best to move forward with this groundbreaking research.’


As the five-year, multidisciplinary Lipgene project draws to a close, researchers from the project present and discuss their main scientific findings at an international conference hosted by University College Dublin on 05 December 2008.

The Lipgene project was established in 2004 as one of the European Union’s sixth framework integrated projects to investigate the interaction between dietary fat composition and genotype in the development of the metabolic syndrome in humans, drawing upon knowledge gained from research in the areas of human nutrition, plant biotechnology, animal nutrition, economics and consumer science.

Ten European countries have been involved in the Lipgene project: Ireland, Finland, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

The Lipgene consortium comprises 22 organisations: University College Dublin, Ireland; University of Reading, UK; University of Oslo, Norway; University of Krakow, Poland; University of Cordoba, Spain; University of Bergen, Norway; University of Upsalla, Sweden; University of Porto, Portugal; University of Ulster at Coleraine, UK; University of York, UK; British Nutrition Foundation; Rowett Research Institute, UK; MTT Agrifoods Research, Finland; INRA, France; Unilever; Rothamstead Research, UK; BASF Plant Science GmbH, Germany; LMC International; NUTRIM, Maastricht, The Netherlands; INSERM, France; Hitachi, Europe Limited.

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Improving our diet by changing the diet of cows - lowered saturated fat content of milk could save thousands of lives