Arla Innovation Centre develops new products based on milk proteins. Photo: Arla.

Healthy low-cost food for the third world

Friday 15 Mar 19
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by Morten Andersen

Strategic partnership

DTU and Arla Foods began a strategic partnership in summer 2018. This focuses on a number of activities, based on the company’s research, education, and innovation needs.

DTU President Anders Bjarklev had this to say when the agreement was entered into:

“Arla and DTU have strong research environments that can learn a lot from each other. Arla is a company that operates at a very high level of excellence. DTU is looking forward to bringing our knowledge of food, production technology, and digitization into play, so we can help create value and perhaps even sustainable development and jobs in Denmark.”

Research plays a key role when dairy giant Arla Foods develops products for third-world countries.

The company has now entered into a strategic partnership with DTU on research, education, and innovation.

Availability is the keyword when Senior Nutrition Scientist Anja Serena describes Arla Foods’ contribution to fulfilling the UN goal of plentiful and healthy food for the world’s population.

“Availability is not just about the quantity of the products, but also the price. It is useless of we make nutritionally sound products, but they are too expensive for people to buy,” she explains.

The interview was held at the Arla Innovation Centre. The centre is beautifully set on a hilltop in the Aarhus suburb of Skejby, but the views don’t extend all the way out to the horizon of Anja Serena’s work: Bangladesh, Nigeria and Ghana are among the countries where Arla Foods is actively developing healthy and available foods.

In a number of third-world countries, there is a high incidence of malnourished children, while obesity is on the rise among adults.

“People eat a diet very high in carbohydrates in many of these countries, and consumers often have a preference for sweet products. It is therefore a challenge for us to develop healthy products containing proteins from milk while also satisfying consumers’ tastes and contributing to a more varied diet. It is our goal that the products must be nutritionally sound. At the same time, we have to ensure that the price is affordable for the population and the taste appeals to consumers,” explains Anja Serena.

Photo: Shutterstock   Milk proteins in powder form were added to the food of Ghanaian children, and the effect on their growth was studied.

Photo: Shutterstock. 

Proteins are not just proteins

Proteins play an important role when developing nutritionally sound products. The notion of protein quality is therefore central.

Protein quality is about the distribution of the amino acids that make up the proteins, which are necessary for us to maintain our muscle and bone mass. It is particularly important that there is a good distribution of the essential amino acids, that humans must get from their diet.

Since 2013, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has recommended that the nutritional value of proteins be scored using DIAAS (Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score). This method is expected to replace another previously recommended method. With the new method, the individual amino acids are viewed as separate nutrients and the difference in quality between plant and animal proteins is made more visible.

In contrast to the previously recommended method, proteins can now obtain a score higher than 100 per cent.

A DIAAS over 100 indicates that the given protein is of such high nutritional quality that it has the potential to enrich other products. One protein that exhibits this property is milk protein, which typically has a score of 120. Local produce improves sustainability

“In the Arla Innovation Centre, we work with availability in different ways. One of these is to look at whether we can use local ingredients, so we can lower the price, while still maintaining a good nutritional profile in the products,” says Anja Serena.

Arla is already using local ingredients. Examples include flavouring ingredients such as cocoa for chocolate milk and the like. While the milk powder used in the company’s products is produced in Denmark.

Translating science into product development

Arla is also involved in a research project investigating children’s growth and cognitive performance. Part of the project is a study involving school children in Ghana, which investigated the effect of milk protein and a mixture of milk and plant protein on the children’s growth. The daily protein supplement was sprinkled over the children’s corn or rice porridge.

“The results showed that the school children who received a protein supplement—whether it was milk protein or a mixture of milk and plant protein—had better body composition than the children who did not receive a protein supplement,” says Anja Serena.

Several cognitive tests were also carried out in the project. Children who received a daily protein supplement equivalent to the amount of protein in a large glass of milk had significantly better results in some cognitive tests.

“It is a great privilege in my job that I can translate science into product development. I have no doubt that we will see new solutions, that allow us to supply products that are both healthy and affordable, and research will play a crucial role in this. To document the nutritional value, but also to enable the new products to be produced,” says Anja Serena. 

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