More than five years after Parmalat launched Europe's first UHT milk enriched with healthy fatty acids, Dawn Dairies, a subsidiary of Irish food group Kerry, has introduced its Dawn Omega Milk to Irish consumers. It can expect strong sales on the back of growing consumer interest in the heart health ingredient.
While there are an increasing number of omega-3 fortified foods on the market, milk remains one of the most widely consumed components of the daily diet and offers a rich opportunity for companies in the functional foods sector. Milk consumption in the European Union is around 95 kilos per capita each year compared to 19 kilos for cheese for example, or between 50-80 kg of bread.
But until now, few companies had managed to add the fish-derived substance to fresh milk, with the majority of omega-3 milks currently available as ultra heat treated (UHT). The UHT process is thought to remove the volatile molecules responsible for the fishy taste in fish oils but in markets such as Ireland and the UK, UHT milk only makes up a small portion of milk sales.
After more than three years of research, DSM has discovered a way of adding its omega-3 fatty acids to fresh milk at the final step of production, using equipment supplied by Tetra Pak company AromPak. The firm's FDU 2000 machine, designed for aseptic dosing of heat sensitive ingredients like bacteria or omega-3 oils, adds an emulsion of DSM's ROPUFA '30' omega-3 Food Oil to processed milk just before it is filled into containers. The fatty acids therefore avoid the pasteurization process, which would destroy the stability of the fish oils.
"There are two other producers outside Europe making fresh milk with added fatty acids. But they also add vegetable oils to protect the fish product, which both changes the flavour profile of the milk and adds omega-6. Not all companies want to add this fatty acid too," explained DSM project manager Sabrina Borghi.
She added that while the emulsion is much more expensive than the regular oil, made using patented Tetra Pak equipment, the process could be cheaper than that used in the vegetable oil milks.
"Adding the fish oil at the end of production saves considerably on cleaning costs. It also allows for easier product differentiation. For example, producers may only want to add the emulsion to their 1 litre packs so they can add the ingredient on one filling line, without having to turn over their entire production to this particular product."
Even more cost effective would of course be the addition of fatty acids to the cow's diet, a process patented by researchers in Canada and resulting in North America's first omega-3-enriched fresh milk, launched this month by Neilson Dairy.
The University of Guelph scientists formulated a diet that protects the DHA from being broken down in the cow's stomach, allowing it instead to be absorbed by the animal and secreted in its milk.
"It's a nice idea but the quantity of long-chain PUFA's (polyunsaturated fatty acids DHA and EPA), which are most important for health, is really low in this product," said Borghi.
The 20mg DHA per 250 ml serving compares to 150mg of DHA and EPA in the same serving of Dawn Dairies' milk.
"There are no established dietary guidelines for omega-3s but we suggest our customers follow the recommendations of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids, that is 650mg per day, offering at least 15 per cent of recommended daily intake per serving of fortified food," said Borghi.
Like other suppliers of fish oils, DSM has seen double-digit growth in its fatty acids in the last two years, driven by increasing consumer knowledge of their health benefits and new product launches. The company estimates the market for PUFAs in food, excluding infant nutrition, to be worth $15 million in Europe alone.
The new technology for omega-3 milks could also be extended to other products - DSM is currently testing its use in yoghurt applications. It has been licensed exlusively to Dawn Dairies in Ireland.