The trial, which will see AgResearch scientists working alongside those at the Liggins Institute, with support from Spring Sheep Milk Co. and Blue River Dairy, comes at a time of rapid growth for the dairy sheep industry in New Zealand.
AgResearch said it has demonstrated sheep milk could offer advantages for some people who suffer from digestive issues with milk, in terms of easier digestion and improved nutrition.
AgResearch senior scientist Dr Linda Samuelsson said, “Based on the literature we have seen, there has been no human clinical trial like this before measuring the digestibility of sheep milk.
“We will be working with people who say they have some difficulty digesting milk. They will be asked to consume a specified amount, and we’ll be looking at how they feel after drinking, and measuring their digestion using blood and breath tests.”
Studies on sheep milk
Spring Sheep Milk Co. is a sheep milk health and nutrition company that creates branded products with grass-fed New Zealand sheep milk. The company is a partnership between state-owned enterprise Landcorp and Asia sales and marketing company SLC Group.
Andrea Wilkins, marketing and innovation director at Spring Sheep Milk Co., said one recent study compared the protein digestibility of sheep and cow milk - with results suggesting sheep milk proteins are more readily digested and are a better source of essential amino acids.
Wilkins told DairyReporter, “We’ve spent the last few years researching and growing our knowledge-base, so now we’re well-armed with key learnings about what our consumer is looking for and how we best meet those needs. Digestibility is just one of the things that we believe sets sheep milk apart from other milks, so we’re excited to be a part of this trial and what this could mean for the growing industry.
“Taking into account the research to date along with consumer feedback we’ve received, we know that sheep’s milk is great for those who are sensitive to cow’s milk. So, we’re really excited about what this clinical trial means for us and for the New Zealand sheep milk industry as a whole,” Wilkins said.
Differences of sheep’s milk
Liggins Institute Research Fellow Dr Amber Milan said sheep milk is very different from cow milk.
“We know that it has more nutrients per glass: more protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. For example, sheep milk has almost twice the level of calcium and zinc, when compared to cow milk. There are also differences in the protein and fat types which we think will alter the digestive properties of sheep milk,” Milan said.
Sheep milk differs in composition to other milks in several ways; with typically twice the solids content of cow’s milk, it delivers twice the protein and up to 60% more calcium. Sheep milk is also high in magnesium, B-vitamins, vitamins A & E, and has all nine essential amino acids. Sheep milk is also an A2-type milk, which doesn’t contain the A1 version of the beta-casein that is linked to some digestive issues.
Wilkins said, “we think that being A2 is just part of the reason sheep milk is reportedly easier to digest for lots of people. We suspect there are a number of factors at play and the clinical study has been designed to help figure that out.”
Some cow’s milk can also be exclusively A2 milk, and A2 cow’s milk has seen a growth in global sales thanks to companies such as the a2 Milk Company.
Results next year
Samuelsson said results from the study should be available early next year.
“The aim is to provide information for consumers who may struggle with their digestion, and to provide solid evidence of the benefits of sheep milk to support New Zealand exports,” Samuelsson said.
Wilkins said while milk composition and taste aren’t included in this study, “there have been other great pieces of work carried out that examines sheep milk’s unique nutrition profile and taste, so we hope this trial will help reinforce sheep milk’s digestibility proposition.”
New Zealand has more than 20,000 sheep for milking at 16 different producers, and new investment is going into milk processing and supply to overseas markets.
Spring Sheep currently exports into Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam with a probiotic powder, calcium chews, and plans to soon launch early life nutrition products including its own infant formula.
CEO Scottie Chapman said the company has deliberately held off from entering larger markets until now.
“We’re now in a fortunate position where we can engage with China and Korea. We’re well positioned to be one of the few players in the high-growth sheep milk advanced nutrition space, which is incredibly exciting for us,” Chapman said.
Together with New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries, Spring Sheep Milk Co. is also working to develop a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable sheep dairy industry.
The NZ$32m (US$21m) Primary Growth Partnership program will see the development of a farming system and genetics program, and will develop and share knowledge and insights to the industry.