The New Zealand pastoral sector is looking furtively over its shoulder at the threat posed by non-animal protein sources synthetic and plant-based milk and meat.

But the dairy sector was also gearing itself up to respond by gaining a better understanding of what makes milk such a valuable nutrient source, through the Smarter Lives: New opportunities for dairy products in the lifespan research project.

Fonterra was on board with the scientists as a commercial partner and research horsepower was boosted from the Riddet Institute, Auckland University’s Centre for Brain Research, Flinders University, University College Cork and Illinois University.

The researchers were looking forward to unravelling the most critical food source required by mammals.

“As a food source milk is unusual in terms of the role it plays, initially in infant protection and growth then through early brain, tissue and bone development, in fact, almost every aspect of early growth.

“And we are only now starting to understand the role it can potentially play at the other end of life in maintaining cognitive function and health,” AgResearch science group leader Dr Jolon Dyer said.

Researchers were starting from some earlier work that indicated milk’s components played a key role in helping with brain development and might play a role in being key ingredients in smart food products of the future.

Dyer was coy on what exactly the components were, with a longer-term research goal being to take the identified components, once their value had been proved scientifically, and apply them to commercial products.

In a world where the proportion of people aged over 60 was going to increase by 56% from 900 million to more than 1.4 billion in 2030 and outnumbering children aged 0-9 by 100m, milk components were going to play a role far beyond infant nurturing.

“As we get older we experience a decrease in cognitive function and it is thought milk has the potential to play a role in mitigating that.”

A key part of the researchers’ focus included the gut-brain axis, a relatively recent link discovered by researchers.

That new area of research discovered the gut contained neurons similar to those in the brain and through them there was communication linking emotional and cognitive centres of the brain with intestinal function.

Research in the area showed noticeable improvements in the ability of rats to cope with stressful activity when their gut was supplemented by specific microbiota.

Changes in the composition of gut microflora caused by drugs, disease and diet could correlate with changes in the brain’s protein levels and overall performance.

The researchers’ horsepower included science leader Dr Nicole Roy of AgResearch leading a multi-disciplinary team including AgResearch, the Riddet Institute, Plant & Food Research and the University of Auckland covering complementary expertise in food components, auto-immune diseases and gut health.

“Roy is regarded as a world leader in the area of gut health research, researching factors which affect nutrient gene interactions and food-host interactions,” Dyer said.

The brain-gut connection was often better understood by Asian consumers, with a culture used to linking mindfulness and mental wellness through foods and herbal remedies.

“They have this understanding of the value of functional foods, including, for example, wide acceptance of probiotics.”

However, that understanding was now also growing rapidly in Western markets as consumers better understood the effects of processed food consumption and sought purer foods delivering specific wellness outcomes.

“This work will be stepping beyond milk’s known nutritive benefits to provide scientifically validated research about its effect on the brain.”

Dyer said there was also a greater understanding about products like milk delivering their benefits as a more natural whole package rather than in component parts.

With global fresh milk consumption on the slide and alternative milk proteins raucously claiming their position in supermarket chillers, he also hoped the research would provide a powerful counter to the arguments those products made about benefits.

“Most foods were not designed specifically to have an impact on human brain development and maintenance, unlike milk, which we hypothesise, does have this specific function for the infant.”

Dyer saw the work typifying a new path of research in the NZ food sector to more premium, value-added outcomes that developed high-value, specific ingredients for use across a range of products.

“It is a very exciting area for researchers to be involved in, stepping well beyond the established work on milk’s nutritional value and into this new area that sees it become a truly functional food.”