The newest science on milk proteins

Without a doubt, the greatest science story of 2020 was the long-running mystery series COVID-19. From the initial sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 genome to the elucidation of its pathogenesis to the “warp-speed” development of vaccines to combat this genome, the coronavirus story has been a rift-sorting page-turner for centuries. And its final chapter has yet to be written.

But it’s not the only narrative played in labs across the country over the past year. Quietly, persistently, and under the media’s radar, nutrition research continued to advance, generating new insights that not only empower the health and wellness industries, but also the health of their consumers.

This has certainly been the case with research into milk proteins and their growing list of benefits. And the knowledge that research continues to uncover is more relevant today than ever.

Research continues

Uncovering knowledge is nothing for dairy nutritionists, and not even a global pandemic could slow it down.

Kristi Saitama, vice president of global ingredient marketing for the US Dairy Export Council (Arlington, VA) said, “The US dairy industry has a heritage of research-driven science – from nutritional science to product performance, to market and consumer insights. While the food sector and other industries face challenges, research on milk proteins, as well as our commitment to future research, remains strong. “

A typical example: With funds from the dairy industry, scientists carried out a new landscape study1 in the first half of 2020, which provides information on how milk proteins are compared with 16 other protein components in terms of processing level and environmental impact, whereby the ingredients were determined from the post-harvest by Protein powder production.

And among the findings: “US milk proteins can have similar effects on the environment as vegetable proteins if they are viewed from the point of view of nutritional quality and not according to the gross weight or calorie content of the food,” says Saitama. Such findings are remarkable at a time when “clean and green” consumers are putting vegetable proteins on a pedestal.

The argument for quality

When it comes to protein quality, the case of the dairy is always remarkable. When asked why milk proteins can hold their own against each of the trendy plant-based options that are making the headlines, Saitama simply replies, “Diet and Choice.”

“Dairy products and plants are both important to achieving a balanced diet,” she admits. “Given the huge differences in the nutritional quality of different proteins, the advantage of milk proteins is that they are nutritionally complete and have solid body-supported benefits – and many years – of published nutritional research. “

Matthew Pikosky, PhD, RD, Vice President of Nutritional Research, National Dairy Council (St. Paul, MN) agrees, noting that protein quality is at least as critical as it is in building formulations to optimize healthy aging, muscle growth, and exercise the amount of protein recovery and more.

And what determines the quality of a protein? As Pikosky explains, what matters is “the full range of essential amino acids in sufficient quantities that the body needs, the digestibility of the protein, and the bioavailability of the digested and absorbed amino acids derived from them”.

In this regard, he says, milk proteins such as whey and casein as well as protein components from milk outperform other proteins not only by established standards such as the PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score), but also by newer and more accurate assessment methods such as the DIAAS ( digestible indispensable amino acid rating) 2

New research for the elderly

Pikosky notes that science has long confirmed the effectiveness of milk proteins in promoting muscle recovery and the “preferred body composition changes” valued by athletes and fitness enthusiasts, the ability of milk proteins to support muscle health in middle-aged and older adults Age-related loss of muscle mass and function known as sarcopenia is also backed by strong evidence.

“In terms of the value of milk protein in middle-aged to older adults,” he says, “recent studies have shown that whey protein has a benefit in mitigating the negative effects of physical inactivity due to a significant reduction in usual daily activity or short-term bed Has.” Rest similar to acute hospitalization or illness and in improving recovery during rehabilitation and return to normal activity. “3.4

Such results are particularly noteworthy in the current health care environment, not only because of their impact on helping elderly COVID survivors restore their former vitality, but also given the fact that lockdowns restrict people’s access to gyms and public spaces as well as Physical facilities have restricted activity more generally, says Pikosky.

A metabolic connection

And an even more recent study5 published in July 2020 adds the metabolic benefits of milk protein to the discussion on healthy aging. The study not only highlights the importance of protein amount and quality in optimizing aging, inactivity, and bed rest, but it also suggests a role for the nutrient in blood sugar management. As Pikosky says, “Research shows the benefits of whey protein as a high quality, versatile protein ingredient that can be easily used by these populations to support muscle health.”

One of the teachings of the study that Pikosky noticed is the distinction between the value of following the recommended daily allowance for protein (which indicates the amount needed to prevent deficiency) and the growing body of evidence for recommending higher protein intake “to aid maintenance.” of muscle mass and function, ”he explains.

How much higher? Research places a minimum protein intake of 1.0 to 1.2 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (g / kg / day) in healthy older adults and up to 2.0 g / kg / day in patients with severe illness and injury near or pronounced malnutrition. In contrast, the recommended daily allowance for adults over 18 years of age is 0.8 g / kg / day, or for adults weighing 180 pounds, about 2.3 ounces.

“The study also discusses the importance of consuming approximately 30 grams of high quality protein with each meal to efficiently target amounts of highly digestible and bioavailable essential amino acids – and particularly leucine – as a practical strategy for supporting muscle health.” Pikosky continues, “The authors specifically challenge the value of whey protein.” Not only does it contain high levels of leucine; In the case of whey protein isolate, it is low in lactose and also has a neutral taste.

Regarding these juicy results that link milk protein and metabolic health, Pikosky notes that both carbohydrate and protein metabolisms increase blood sugar levels, stimulate insulin and affect muscle metabolism, and shift intake towards a more balanced ratio between the two – read She: Towards More Protein – Can better modulate postprandial blood sugar levels in a way that is beneficial to older adults “as they usually experience decreases in muscle mass, physical activity, and insulin sensitivity that affect blood sugar management and thereby risk for type 2 diabetes increase, “he said.

Way forward

Looking ahead, Pikosky suspects that research into the role of protein quality in supporting muscle and metabolic health, especially in older adults, will continue. Finally, he emphasizes: “Current forecasts6 indicate that the population aged 85 and over will grow from 5.8 million in 2010 to 19 million in 2050. Measures to maintain health for this age group have far-reaching implications for public health and health spending. ”

Saitama agrees, adding that milk proteins have a role to play. “Especially when we think of innovative foods that meet the nutritional needs of older adults and seniors,” she says, “every bite counts. So nutritional quality really makes a difference. “


  1. survey
  2. Phillips SM. “Current concepts and unresolved questions about protein needs and nutritional supplements in adults.” Limits in diet. Published online 8 May 2017.
  3. Arentson-Lantz EJ et al. “Improving the quality of protein in the diet reduces the negative effects of physical inactivity on body composition and muscle function.” The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, vol. 74, no. 10 (September 2019): 1605-1611
  4. Oikawa SY et al. “A randomized controlled trial of the impact of protein supplementation on leg muscle mass and integrated muscle protein synthesis during inactivity and energy restriction in the elderly.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 108, no. 5 (November 1, 2018): 1060-1068
  5. Phillips SM et al. “Optimizing Protein Intake in Adults in Catabolic Health Conditions.” Advances in Diet, vol. 11, no. 4 (July 1, 2020): S1058 – S1069
  6. Houchins JA et al. “Nutritional Modeling in Older Americans: The Influence of Increased Plant-Based Foods or Dairy Products on Protein Intake.” Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging, vol. 21, no. 6 (2017): 673- 680

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