Omega-3 Enriched Milk by Microalgae-Fed Cows could Boost Food Nutrition

Jan. 4, 2018 | Cassie Chew

Dive Brief:

    -- In a project funded by Lexington, Kentucky-based biotech firm Alltech, a UK-based food scientist increased the level of long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in milk by feeding microalgae to cows. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and depression, improve mental health and enhance a child's learning ability.

    -- Cheese produced from this milk also had increased levels omega-3. A tasting panel found the flavor, color and texture of this cheese was similar to varieties produced with regular milk.

    -- “By increasing the level of omega-3 in cheese, which is already integrated into many people’s diets, they can have this healthier benefit without having to alter their eating and shopping habits," said Bethan Till, lead researcher of the study at Harper Adams University in the U.K.

Dive Insight:  

Juice bars featuring drinks fueled by the blue-green algae spirulina cater to the die-hard health conscious person seeking to boost their nutritional intake. But the tolerance to consume a beverage known for having “an acquired taste,” along with the budget to support this pricey nutritional habit, likely have hindered its growth.

In an application of the principle “you are what you eat” to livestock, new research out of Harper Adams University found that adding microalgae to cow feed could increase the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in milk, which then improves the level of the nutrient in cheese produced from the enhanced liquid.

This data could spur microalgae use at the beginning of the food chain. It also could have a wide-reaching benefit on products such as cheese, yogurt and other dairy-based items that use milk by raising their nutritional content.

As trends in food shift to plant-based items, researchers see microalgae as a substitute for fish, particularly for children and pregnant women who, due to mercury levels, have been advised to limit consumption. An important thing to watch out for is making sure products produced from this special milk don't have a taste that could turn off consumers — a factor that does not appear to be the case here.

Microalgae already has captured headlines in recent years for its potential to replace animal protein. Breakfast staples, beverages, snacks and other food items are being enhanced by the nutritional power-packed punch coming this tiny single-celled organism. Snack maker Mondelez has incorporated algal protein into its Enjoy Life gluten-free baking mixes. Even Mars is reportedly considering whether to use algae-derived colors for some of its candy and gum products.

As more food manufacturers incorporate microalgae into their product development, sales are expected to grow rapidly. The global market for microalgae is expected to reach $44.7 billion by 2023, according to a report from Credence Research.

In terms of boosting the content of omega-3 fatty acids in milk with microalgae derivatives, Dean Foods has introduced its Horizon Organics milk line featuring algal oil. But the formulation has received a lot of backlash amid concern that the algal oil added to the milk is a synthetic product. Critics also question whether at 32 milligram per one-cup serving, the amount of omega-3 in the product is worth its higher price.

Researchers have tested adding flaxseed, also high omega-3, to livestock diets. Organic milk produced from grass-fed cows has been found to have higher omega-3 fatty acid levels than conventional milk that comes from cows consuming corn and grain-based diets.

A study by Mintel showed U.S. non-dairy milk sales increased 9% in 2015, while dairy milk sales declined 7% over the same period. A quick peek into the refrigerator case at a grocery store and consumers can see this trend is happening in front of their eyes, as retailers are increasingly stocking more plant-based milks with fewer artificial ingredients.

​Offered commercially, the omega-3 enriched milk could offer a competitive advantage to manufacturers producing milk-based items like cheese and yogurt. It could help traditional milk better compete with plant-based beverages made from nuts, soybeans and rice by giving producers and product manufacturers another way to convince shoppers to buy their product.