Better nutritional education may help improve attitudes towards dairy products and serve as a useful tool for public health campaigns seeking to increase intake levels, according to a new Australian research study.
Writing in the BMC Public Health journal, researchers from the University of Wollongong said they wanted to explore the “salient beliefs” of adults who had completed a weight loss trial (with intensive nutrition education over 12 months) regarding both traditional and functional dairy products.
Nolan-Clarke et al. then compared this group’s perspectives with those of a similarly sized control group not exposed to an intensive education course.
The team began from the standpoint that, as they described it, inadequate dairy product consumption without dietary substitution may have deleterious health consequences.
They also referenced literature linking dairy products to a decreased risk of osteoporosis (R.P Heaney 2000) and metabolic syndrome (Elwood et al. 2007).
Functional benefits questioned
For the current study, Australian participants were asked questions relating to dairy products within six focus groups. Half included weight-loss trial completers (15 participants all over 40 years old) and three control groups comprised university employees from the same region (14, of whom four were under 40 years-old).
Results showed that non-trial participants perceived dairy foods as weight-inducing. They also displayed a “high degree of scepticism” regarding the potential beneficial health effects of functional dairy products, while the removal of products from their ‘natural’ state was another key factor impeding consumption.
And while trial participants also expressed some scepticism as to functional dairy efficacy and a preference for more ‘natural’ products, the team found that this group was more open to plant-sterol containing products and calcium-enriched milk and dairy products.
Non-trial participants also reported that they believed calcium and bone health were the key health benefits attributable to dairy food consumption, with few other health benefits identified.
The academics said these perceptions mirrored previous focus group feedback (Hagy et al. 2000) whereby women attributed dairy health benefits to calcium, and failed to identify other nutrients such as protein of specific vitamins and minerals present within dairy products.
Nolan Clarke et al. wrote: “In contrast, the trial participants identified health benefits attributable to dairy products beyond bone health. Dairy foods were seen as a significant source of protein, vitamins and minerals. This may reflect the extent of nutrition education received by this group.”
Trial participants also discussed several health benefits related to dairy foods, were better versed in translating product labels and more confident in their ability to incorporate dairy foods into diets, the researchers found.
Weight management debate
Several members of the non-trial group also said they perceived dairy products as “fattening and mucous producing”, which the academics said was a challenge for nutrition professionals, particularly given public health recommendations to consume a reduced fat diet.
“This finding does not reflect literature in the nutrition science domain which suggests a potential weight loss effect associated with the consumption of dairy products. Furthermore, dairy fat has been associated with favourable metabolic profiles in large population studies.”
In conclusion, the academics said: “This study provides a proof of concept indication that nutrition education may improve attitudes towards dairy products and may thus be an important target for public health campaigns seeking to increase intake of this food group.”
But Nolan-Clark et al. called for further research as to the role nutrition education played in shaping consumer beliefs. They also noted the relatively small sample size of their study, and the fact that the two assessed groups were not matched for weight status, with trial participants overweight on average.
Title: ‘Consumers’ salient beliefs regarding dairy products in the functional food era: a qualitative study using concepts from the theory of planned behaviour’.
Authors: D.J Nolan-Clark, E.P Neale, Y.C Probst, K.E Charlton, L.C Tapsell.
Source: BMC Public Health 2011, 11:843 doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-843 , published online ahead of print on November 3.