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Research seeks to fill milk ‘whole’ in dietary guidelines

Progressive Dairyman Editor Dave Natzke Published on 22 April 2019

While legislative and administrative efforts seek to expand dairy options in school lunchrooms, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) likely provide a key avenue to get whole milk back into schools.

Dr. Greg Miller, global chief science officer of National Dairy Council (NDC), and Adam Landau, vice president/partner lead for Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), shared updates on milkfat and fluid milk and their potential place in the soon-to-be-revised DGA during a conference call with media, April 17.

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The DGA is updated every five years, developed by an advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) and USDA. The “2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans” update is scheduled for release at the end of 2020, and the advisory committee held its first public meeting on March 28-29.

A public comment period remains open throughout the advisory committee’s deliberations.

Beyond providing dietary recommendations, the document is also used as the basis for dairy options served as part of the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs and other federal feeding programs.

While NDC and DMI cannot lobby the government agencies, the organizations can submit comments and provide research updates on milkfat that could be incorporated in the DGA.

“If the dietary guidelines embrace the growing segment of whole milk dairy foods and potentially offer flexibility in choices across fat levels, then we may get whole milk as an option in schools,” Miller said.

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Fighting ‘fat’ dogma

The complicated “milkfat” story has been ongoing for years.

“We’re trying to undo 50 years of dogma that’s been out there,” said Miller, who has served at NDC since 1992. “Consumers were concerned about saturated fat; milkfat nutritionists and health professionals were telling us that saturated fat was bad, it causes heart disease, and we should avoid foods that contain saturated fat.”

To address those concerns, the dairy industry created various lower-fat product options.

“Interestingly enough, farmers always said there was something different about milkfat,” Miller said.

Miller called milkfat one of the more complex and unique fat sources consumed, involving more than 400 types of fatty acids. Research has shown that whole-milk dairy foods – cheese, milk and yogurt – do not raise blood cholesterol levels to the level predicted by its saturated fat content.

Beyond countering the negative beliefs regarding milkfat, researchers turned to a new challenge: identify actual health benefits from milkfat consumption. Dairy checkoff- and independently funded research into milkfat and whey proteins have already made inroads in one area.

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“After years of research, we built a body of research that shows milk, and particularly flavored milk, is a great recovery beverage after working out,” Miller said. “Now we see that flavored milk is in every locker room across the country.”

Miller said researchers have continuously sought to identify “bioactive components” in milkfat that provide health benefits. Among the findings, consumption of milk, cheese and yogurt may reduce risks to chronic diseases.

“What we found over the years is that dairy foods, specifically milk, cheese and yogurt, regardless of fat levels, provide health benefits,” Miller said. “Consumption of dairy foods is associated with bone health and reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.

“What we are seeing is that there are some of these compounds in dairy that are being associated with reduced risk of stroke and Type 2 diabetes. In fact, the data is probably strongest as it relates to reducing risk of Type 2 diabetes.”

Miller said one of the world’s foremost diabetes research centers, Joslin Diabetes Center, Boston, Massachusetts, now suggests whole milk can be an acceptable option – along with managing total caloric intake – for people with or trying to prevent diabetes.

“We hope this kind of movement will be reflected in future dietary guidelines,” he said.

Getting back in schools

Adding whole milk to the school lunchroom menu won’t be as simple as changing orders from low-fat to higher-fat or whole-milk varieties. School district nutritionists must balance weekly average fat and calorie counts for students, and may have to make adjustments to other food items on the menu to offset whole milk if they decide to add it as one of the options, said Camellia Patey, vice president of school wellness partnerships for NDC. And while state guidelines can be stricter than federal guidelines, they cannot be more lenient. That’s why milk flexibility in the DGA is critical.

In an “obesity epidemic,” the DGA will likely still recommend consumption of fat-free and low-fat dairy products as a means to meet nutrition requirements with lower amounts of fat and calories. However, the building consensus around emerging research data that the consumption of whole-milk dairy foods is neutral-to-beneficial in terms of chronic disease risks may be strong enough to lead to increased flexibility in the 2020-25 DGA.

“I feel like we’ve turned the corner,” Miller said. “We’re seeing whole milk being recommended by health professional organizations, in health professional newsletters.”

Other efforts

There are legislative efforts to expand dairy options, including whole milk, in school feeding programs. Earlier this year, H.R. 832 (the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act of 2019) was reintroduced by U.S. Reps. Glenn "GT" Thompson (R-Pennsylvania) and House Ag Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota). Read: Is whole milk headed back to schools?

The USDA is also advancing a final rule titled “The Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains and Sodium Requirements.” That rule gives schools more discretion in selecting the varieties of milk served during lunch and breakfast programs, and allows local operators to permanently offer flavored, low-fat milk without having to apply for waivers. Read: USDA rule permanently expands school milk options.

Attorneys general from six states and the District of Columbia have filed a lawsuit pertaining to that rule, largely over implementation procedures and flexibility in meeting allowable sodium levels in school lunch and breakfast programs. The lawsuit does not cite proposed changes to milk options. Read: States suing the USDA over school nutrition program changes in the April 18, 2019, issue of Progressive Dairyman’s Extra enewsletter.

Consumers making the change

Consumers may be already recognizing the health benefits of milkfat, said DMI’s Landau.

“The good news is that consumers hear that science and adopt to it much more quickly than some of the health professionals do,” he said. “Five years ago, whole milk represented about 30 percent of total fluid retail sales. This year, it’s about 40 percent as consumers switch from lower-fat to whole-fat varieties. In addition, IRI research is showing consumers drinking whole milk are drinking more of it.”

While sales of fat-free and lower-fat milk varieties have continued to decline, whole milk sales have grown 3 to 4 percent over the past five years, and sales of flavored whole milk have grown about 6 percent per year over the same period.

In addition to consumer trends toward whole-fat products, Landau attributed that growth to innovation in the marketplace, including new products by fairlife and others, and Kroger’s launch of new flavored whole milk products. The move toward whole-fat dairy is also growing across other product categories, such as butter and yogurt. Growth in demand will spur further innovation, he added.  end mark

Dave Natzke
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