This remarkable component of beef and dairy products shows potential to reduce the incidence of several of the world's most significant health concerns
Beef and dairy products are nutrient-rich foods, chock-full of high-quality protein, vitamins and minerals. Now they may also be one of the best ways to make gains in the human health battle with several major chronic diseases.
The key to this potential lies in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), an essential fatty acid that new research is uncovering as a promising food component that may provide health benefits related to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, bone density and obesity.
In Canada, a major effort to understand and harvest the promise of CLA is the CLA Network. The CLA Network is a team of research, food industry, health and communications professionals dedicated to helping Canada and the world capitalize on the health and economic opportunities of CLA. It was founded in Alberta in 2001, through a collaborative effort involving government, academia and industry. Today the CLA Network is continuing to expand, with partners from across Canada and internationally.
The biological activity of CLA was first discovered in the late 1970s by researchers investigating the carcinogenic properties of grilled hamburger. They found there were anti-carcinogenic properties as well. They isolated the component responsible for this effect and identified it as CLA.
Since that time, researchers around the world have been studying this compound and have discovered that CLA may have the potential to reduce the incidence of several of the world's most significant health concerns.
Canadian researchers have been very active in studying the health benefits, the impact on animals and the methods of increasing CLA in both beef and dairy products. They are part of a now rapidly growing international base of CLA research and development.
CLA is formed naturally in ruminant animals when microorganisms in the gut add hydrogen to linoleic acid, a "good fat" that is essential to human diets.
The CLA that results from this hydrogenation process retains the essential health-facilitating properties of linoleic acid. Plus, it features two important added benefits - the abilities to displace bad fat and to act as an anti-carcinogen.
Though CLA research is in the early stages, pioneering studies based largely on animal models have shown considerable CLA promise for human health benefits. This promise is broad, with CLA activity showing potential benefits related to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, bone density and obesity.
Synthetic forms of CLA have been developed for both commercial supplements and research purposes, but many leading scientists believe the CLA found naturally in beef and dairy products may offer the best avenue for developing CLA health potential.
Because of this, there is strong, fast-rising interest in strategies to increase the concentration of CLA in beef and dairy products.
Not all CLA is the same - research shows it is expressed in many different chemical structures, called isomers. Scientists have identified many different isomers for beef and dairy CLA, each with varying degrees of activity. They are now pursuing studies to pinpoint the health benefits of these isomers and investigate the potential to enhance those benefits.
The opportunity for enhanced commercial products is great. For example, research has shown that CLA levels can be increased seven-fold in beef and 10-fold in milk. With that kind of dramatic increase, consumers could take in a very substantial portion of CLA by simply substituting regular beef and dairy products for those with enhanced CLA levels.
Research also indicates that CLA impacts milk biosynthesis in dairy animals and fat formation and deposition in beef animals. As a result, through understanding and careful tweaking of CLA's impact, there is potential to optimize not only the level of CLA but also the deposition of fat in general.
CLA is technically a "trans" fatty acid because it is partially hydrogenated. However, it is a clear exception to the negative messages consumers typically receive about trans fat.
Those messages are associated with the trans fat that results primarily from the hydrogenation of vegetable fats and oil through commercial processes. Natural trans fats, including those contained in ruminant fats, do not share the harmful properties of commercial ones. Rather, these natural trans fats may be health promoting, with important roles to play in the human body.
In fact, in recognition of CLA's potential health benefits, Health Canada did not include CLA as part of the total trans fat value in the new nutrition label.
A network to drive Canada's potential
To help drive Canada's potential in CLA, the CLA Network was formed with the purpose of investigating and developing new bioactive lipid enriched beef, dairy and nutraceutical products. Initially based largely in Alberta, the Network included a varied group of scientists, researchers and industry representatives, who began by meeting to review the current research and knowledge gaps about animal fat and CLA.
An early focus was the development of an action plan that included the dynamic process of identifying research needs and the development of collaborative projects. A process was also initiated to draw further support for CLA research. As a result, a variety of funders, government and academia in 2002 committed to a $4.7 million dollar CLA research project that would become a major anchor project to solidify the Network and define its mission.
This project, ongoing today, has a broad mandate to investigate the health benefits of CLA, the potential of increasing CLA content in beef and dairy products, the development of CLA enriched products and market readiness for these products.
In 2004, the CLA Network stakeholders invested a further $735,000 in support of communication and coordination to bolster the effort.
The CLA Network today includes representatives from many areas of expertise, representing all key segments of the chain from research and development to the global marketplace, and is linked to similar expertise worldwide.
It includes several fully integrated collaborative research modules. These cover the areas of both dairy and beef production, animal mechanisms, human health, market research, product development and communications.
This approach provides a unique opportunity to link human health to the development of specialized production practices that enable the development of food products with functional properties. Although each component could function separately, the cost is much lower and the effectiveness is much higher when they operate together.
The CLA Network, using its multidisciplinary approach, increases Canada's research capacity in functional foods and natural health products, strengthen industry capacity to act on opportunities and commercialize new technology, and advances Alberta and Canada's position as a global player in bio-active lipid research and development.
Today, the CLA Network is continuing to expand, drive progress and take on new challenges.