By Jon Bonné
updated 3/15/2004 12:34:04 PM ET 2004-03-15T17:34:04

Adding seeds used to make canola oil into the diet of dairy cows helps reduce the amount of saturated fat in their milk, which could lead to dairy products with more healthy fatty acids and less bad fats, research shows.

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Though many milk drinkers seek out lowfat options, the composition of the fat in milk is the same. And milk fat usually contains 60 percent or more saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol levels and lead to greater risk of heart disease -– regardless of whether you drink whole milk, 2 percent or 1 percent, the composition of milk fat usually doesn’t change.

But researchers in Northern Ireland were able to reduce the percentage of saturated fat from 64 percent to just over 50 percent, while raising the percentage of unsaturated fat from 35 percent to 46 percent -– without the cows producing less milk.

Agricultural researcher Anna Fearon, who authored the study, published Monday in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, said it offers potential to make a generally healthy product even healthier.

“You don’t need to have as many guilt pangs,” said Fearon, who works for Queen’s University Belfast and Northern Ireland’s agricultural department, “If you’re going for the fat that’s in dairy products, go for the healthier ones and you’ll feel better about it.”

Seeking spreadable butter
Actually, the research was designed to find something else: butter that could spread more easily.

Originally commissioned by Dale Farm Ltd., Northern Ireland’s largest dairy producer, the hope was to create butter that was spreadible even when pulled straight from the refrigerator. In the United Kingdom, anything sold as butter cannot contain added oils, Fearon said, so the dairy company wanted milk fat that wouldn’t as easily turn solid.

While saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature, unsaturated fats usually are liquid, so more unsaturated fat -– aside from being healthier -– makes chilled butter easier to spread. The resulting product is already on Northern Irish shelves under the Dramona brand, renamed “pure butter” to ease shoppers’ suspicions about its easy-to-spread properties.

To change the fat content, the research team fed over five dozen cows doses of rapeseed oil, more commonly known as canola oil, which is second only to olive oil in its content of monounsaturated fats. Modest portions of the seeds were added to the cows’ usual diet of grass and silage, and the animals’ rumens — second stomachs that can process foliage undigestible to humans — and mammary glads transformed the seeds into mostly monounsaturated fats, the fatty acids that help reduce the bad elements of cholesterol.

Not only were the 64 Holstein-Friesian cows able to produce as much milk, but they were just as healthy after eating the new diet. In other words, healthier fats not only kept them healthy but resulted in healthier milk.

“The cows were happy and we were getting a spreadable butter, and one that was more unsaturated, which obviously is better for you,” Fearon said.

'The cow didn't adjust'
Though better butter was the goal, the healthier milk could be used as a straight product or could be used to make things such as ice cream with less saturated fat. 

While the researchers expected to see only a modest change in fat content before the effect plateaued, Fearon said, the healthy changes kept increasing with larger doses of the oil, all the way up to 600 grams of rapeseed oil per cow per day. And the cows were more than willing to keep eating rapeseed, which is grown throughout Britain and Ireland, and in modest amounts in the United States.

“The cow didn’t adjust,” Fearon said. “She was quite happy with what she was getting and she continued to respond.”

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