Milk has been found to inhibit the disease-causing bacteria but also encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. It has also been shown to improve immune function, lower blood pressure and speed the uptake of hard-to-absorb nutrients, like iron. It may even be helpful in weight control.
Bruce German, food science professor at the University of California Davis in the US, which is organising the project, suggests that by learning how milk works by studying the genes that encode instructions for making it, its benefits could be transferred to other foods.
The new research consortium, to be supported by funding from Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland, will compare milk genes in many species, with an emphasis on human genes.
When the benefits of milk are understood, they will theoretically be transferable to any type of food.
"Just because a specific benefit originates in milk, that doesn't mean that milk is the only way you could get it," notes German. "Milk evolved to be nourishing. And the footprints of evolution are in the genes, so the [milk] genome is a real obvious place to look for ways to improve foods."
For more information on the project, contact the university.