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Vistamilk SFI Research Centre – Fortixan
At the Nutrition Research Center of Ireland (NRCI), we are 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.
Image by 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.
What is lutein?
The NRCI is one of Vistamilk’s participating groups dedicated to researching and developing novel nutrifunctional dairy products. In this context, our team, composed of the PhD student Hao Shi, Dr Rebecca Power, Prof John Nolan and myself (Dr Alfonso Prado-Cabrero), are developing and testing a lutein-enriched yoghurt. This novel product 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 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.
Why a lutein-enriched yoghurt?
At the NRCI, we believe that increasing the presence of carotenoids in food 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 not only in carotenoids, but also in many other nutrients that are equal or more important to maintain good health. Our novel lutein-enriched 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 these carotenoids, but at the NRCI we believe that a lutein-enriched 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.
How have we made this lutein-enriched yoghurt?
When you go to the market and buy yoghurts, those with peach or banana flavour have a yellowish colour. Some companies use carotenoids (usually beta-carotene) to achieve this colour, but as only a light hue is needed, about 1 mg of carotenoid per 100 g of yoghurt makes the work.
EFSA allows a maximum of 15 mg of lutein per 100 g of yoghurt. And that’s what we’re doing at the NRCI. Cybercolors Ltd provides us with a lutein emulsion that allows us to create a yoghurt with 15 mg of lutein per 100 g. Importantly, we have verified in our laboratory that added lutein remains stable throughout the shelf life of the yoghurt. When you buy lutein capsules, depending on the brand, these usually contain between 5 and 10 mg (some 20 mg) of lutein each. Therefore, we can 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 capsules with carotenoids protected by vegetal oil are more easily digestible than those protected by beadlets, which have to be decapsulated by the digestive system before being absorbed. This experience stems from our ability at the NRCI to conduct human trials. Therefore, the second part of our project at Vistamilk is to produce the lutein-enriched yoghurt on a small scale to conduct a human trial. Our goal is to analyse how efficiently this yoghurt increases lutein levels in the study participants’ blood and tissue.
At this point, we have already 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 companies. We want to mention IOSA (Industrial Organica SA, Mexico) and The Howard Foundation, Cambridge (UK) since they are the main contributors to our project, both economically and in terms of expertise and intellectual property. We also want to thank Cybercolors Ltd for their recent incorporation into our project and their knowledge of natural colourants and regulations. On the other hand, 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!