Development of global fatty acid models and possible applications

Q & A interview with Dairy Farming Senior Specialist Dr. Daniel Schwarz


Knowing the fatty acid composition (i.e. fatty acid profile) of raw milk is valuable information for milk processors and milk producers aiming to enhance the quality of dairy products, optimise milk processing and/or optimise dairy cow performance through improved feeding and management. 


In a recent research article, Dr. Daniel Schwarz, Marie Rosenberg Bak and Dr. Per Waaben Hansen describe the development of global fatty acid models for high-throughput Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) milk analysers and the possible practical applications of such models in the dairy industry.


We interviewed one of the authors, Dr. Daniel Schwarz, Dairy Farming Senior Specialist, M.Sc. Agriculture, Ph.D., about the background and conclusions of the study. 


What was the objective of this study?
The first objective of the study was to describe the development of global fatty acid models and their performance. We wanted to be open and transparent about that and provide the industry with detailed information. Such an article can provide an important foundation to build further work on, e.g. development of actual practical applications.


Secondly, we wanted to provide examples of possible practical applications of fatty acid profiles based on real-life data sets and discuss these further. 


Why is the subject of fatty acid profiles important?
Milk fat is an important nutrient for young animals and humans and its composition (i.e. fatty acid profile) may vary broadly. It is well-known that many factors such as animal feeding and genetics have an impact on the fatty acid profile. While the full potential of working with fatty acid data is probably not yet exploited, it was clear that the industry needed a cost-efficient and high-throughput method to generate fatty acid profiles. Traditional methods to determine fatty acid profiles are labour-intensive and expensive, such as gas chromatography, and thus not very practical for routine milk testing laboratories.  


What are the main conclusions of the study? 
The models that we developed allow reliable and accurate prediction of fatty acid profiles using FTIR technology. Results generated by the models were compared to the gas chromatography reference method (used according to IDF/ISO standards) and good correlations were found.  This opens up the possibility to routinely test raw milk for fatty acid profiles in a cost-effective way. 


Who can benefit from measuring fatty acid profiles?
Milk processors and milk producers. In fact, some milk processors have already been using milk fatty acid profiles for many years to manufacture dairy products with enhanced nutritional properties (i.e. enhanced concentration of unsaturated fatty acids). They could also use the data to optimise milk processing procedures (e.g. segregation of milk based on certain fatty acid profiles). This aspect, however, is a newer field of application and more work still needs to be done to develop a better understanding of the actual potential. 


Milk producers can mostly benefit in terms of optimising dairy cow nutrition because milk fatty acid profiles provide more detailed insights into the nutritional status of a cow than other parameters such as milk fat and protein do.


Beyond that, there are indications from different researchers that the milk fatty acid profile can be used to estimate methane emission of dairy cows, which is of concern by the public in many countries. Hence, this possibility should be explored further and might develop into, at least, a screening tool to monitor methane emission over time. 


Where will the impact be made in the processing of milk by using data from fatty acid profiles?
As mentioned above, the production of dairy products with enhanced concentrations of certain fatty acids is already being practiced in some countries. In this context, dairy products that are enriched with unsaturated fatty acids are a popular product for consumers. We do further foresee that processing of milk can be optimised by, for example, segregating milk depending on fatty acid profiles. In this context, certain fatty acid profiles might be more appropriate for specific dairy products than others. If we take butter as an example: it is well-known that butter produced based on milk with high concentrations of unsaturated fatty acids is smooth and easy to spread. At this point, there is a need to further investigate associations between milk fatty acid profiles and the processing properties of milk. However, a crucial first step has already been done because a cost-effective method to generate fatty acid profiles is now available. 


Read the full study
In February 2022, this research article was selected by the International Journal of Dairy Technology as an “Editor’s choice” feature article because its content has “global potential for cost-effective adoption or significantly adds to the science and technology of milk processing”.


The full study can be freely accessed here

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