Novel lutein-fortified yoghurt developed at the Nutrition Research Centre Ireland (NRCI)

Our goal is to hit the market to improve human health and raise awareness of the importance of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables

Yoghurts with different levels of lutein, prepared at the NRCI. Photograph: NRCI

At the NRCI, we believe that increasing the presence of carotenoids in foods beyond fruits and vegetables can help certain population groups. Nevertheless, do not be misled: Fruits and vegetables should be the basis of the human diet, as they are rich in carotenoids, but also in many other nutrients that are equal or more important to maintain a good health. Our novel lutein-fortified yoghurt is designed for children with challenging eating habits, for the elderly with difficulties in eating a healthy diet (such as Alzheimer’s patients), for adults with a deficiency in the assimilation of carotenoids from the diet, or for people dedicated to activities with high metabolic demand such as athletes.

There is already a multitude of dietary supplements on the market encapsulating lutein for the general population, but at the NRCI we believe that a lutein-fortified yoghurt is a better option for children and the elderly. Furthermore, this yoghurt highlights the presence of lutein, as the intense yellow-orange colour of this carotenoid is evident at plain sight. We will use the colour of the yoghurt to showcase the importance of carotenoids in health and educate the population on the need of consuming fruits and vegetables.

The importance of lutein

This yoghurt is a natural consequence of the work we have been carrying out at the NRCI for the past 10 years. Our centre is specialized in studying the benefits of the supplementation with the carotenoids that protect our retina, where lutein plays a central role. Carotenoids are natural pigments widespread in nature, with essential roles as antioxidants, light capture molecules or as hormone precursors. Lutein (and the rest of the carotenoids) can only be obtained from the diet, and the consumption of lutein (along with zeaxanthin) has been shown to protect against age-related macular degeneration. Furthermore, our centre has demonstrated that lutein consumption, together with zeaxanthin and meso-zeaxanthin, improve vision even in healthy people. The benefits of consuming adequate amounts of these carotenoids are not limited to vision, but extend to brain function and cardiovascular health.

How have we made this lutein-fortified yoghurt?

When you buy yoghurts in the market, those with peach or banana flavour have a yellowish colour. Some companies use very slight amounts of carotenoids (usually less than 1 mg of beta-carotene per 100 g of yoghurt) to achieve this colour.

But EFSA allows up to 15 mg of lutein per 100 g of yoghurt, which is actually more than what you can find in the average capsule. And that’s what we’re doing at the NRCI. We are producing yoghurts with 15 mg of lutein sourced from Cybercolors Ltd. Importantly, we have verified in our laboratory that added lutein remains stable throughout the shelf life of the yoghurt. Therefore, we could say that taking one of our yoghurts is equivalent to taking a capsule.

But this is in theory. At the NRCI, we have experience in evaluating how the formulation of carotenoids influences their absorption in the digestive system. For example, we know that  carotenoids are better absorbed if they are immersed in a vegetal oil. This experience stems from our ability at the NRCI to conduct human trials. Therefore, the second part of FortiXan is to test our lutein-fortified yoghurtin a human trial. Our goal is to analyse how efficiently this yoghurt increases lutein levels in the study participants’ blood.

What is Vistamilk?

The Nutrition Research Center of Ireland (NRCI), is part of the Vistamilk SFI (Science Foundation Ireland) Research Centre. Vistamilk’s mission is to positively impact the environment, animal well-being and the health of consumers. Thus, Vistamilk aims to positively impact the entire production chain while looking to mitigate any environmental impacts derived from its activity.
Cows feeding. Photograph: Matthias Zomer, Pexels
Six public research entities in Ireland and more than 50 companies worldwide are part of Vistamilk. Together, they are investigating, for example, how to identify the right timing and amounts of nutrients to fertilize the soil, find methods to decrease the methane emitted by cows, and develop wearable sensors to detect, in advance, when a cow is going to get sick. The impact of these three improvements will be, respectively, to reduce water pollution by fertilizers, reduce the livestock industry’s impact on global warming, and improve the welfare of cows while maintaining milk production and quality to the highest standards for human consumption.

At this point, In the frame of FortiXan, we have worked with 10 companies from Ireland and the world, including flavouring consultants, regulatory consultants, commercial pilot plant services (Moorepark Technology, Fermoy, Ireland), flavour companies, and microbiological analysis laboratories. IOSA (Industrial Organica SA, Mexico) and The Howard Foundation, Cambridge (UK) are the main contributors to our project, both economically and in terms of expertise and intellectual property. Cybercolors has recently joined our project and their knowledge of natural colourants and regulations is being key for our success. We also want to mention the collaborations we have established with other research groups participating in Vistamilk. We look forward to continuing to work to help improve the quality of dairy products produced in Ireland and around the world!

Alfonso Prado-Cabrero is a research fellow at the Nutrition Research Centre Ireland, Waterford Institute of Technology. He is specialised in molecular biology, biotechnology, genetics, carotenoids and fatty acids