New Zealand will continue its groundbreaking work in dairy products when AgResearch starts a world-first clinical trial to test the benefits of sheep milk for human digestion.
AgResearch scientists will work alongside those at the Auckland University’s Liggins Institute – with support from Spring Sheep Milk Co and Blue River Dairy – to find out whether sheep milk can offer advantages for those suffering from digestive issues with other milk types.
AgResearch senior scientist Dr Linda Samuelsson says the research comes at a time of rapid growth for the dairy sheep industry, and sheep milk could be easier to digest and provide improved nutrition.
“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.”
Spring Sheep Milk marketing and innovation director Andrea Wilkins says a 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.
“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.”
Liggins Institute research fellow Dr Amber Milan says the trial subjects will be asked to drink both sheep and cow milk. “Sheep milk is very different from cow milk. We know that it has more nutrients per glass: more protein, fat, vitamins and minerals,” she says.
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.
New Zealand now boasts more than 20,000 sheep for milking at 16 different producers, and significant new investment is going into milk processing and supply to overseas markets.
Sheep milk products from New Zealand are currently being exported to growth markets such as China, Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Blue River Dairy marketing and supply chain manager Gareth Lyness says there is already a latent awareness of the benefits of sheep milk.
“Asian consumers express these benefits in terms of how much ‘heat’ the milk brings to our bodies; Sheep milk is understood to ‘create less inner heat’ than other milks, meaning it is gentler on the digestive system.”
Results from the trial should be available early next year.