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Science blazing trail for CLA health benefits

Natural beef and dairy fat may help prevent chronic disease.

CheeseBeef and dairy products are chock-full of nutrients and 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 contribute to the prevention of a range of chronic diseases, including cancer and heart disease.

"CLA research is in early stages, but there is growing evidence this natural fat is a significant health-promoter," says Raman Kapoor, a registered nutritionist and nutrition educator with Alberta Milk. "We know significant levels of CLA are present naturally in beef and dairy products and there are opportunities to increase those natural levels through a variety of livestock production strategies. As a result, there is growing interest in science and industry to understand and capitalize on CLA health benefits."

Discovery of CLA benefits

"CLA research is in the early stages, but there is growing evidence this natural fat is a significant health-promoter. Scientists have many different isomers for beef and dairy CLA, each with varying degrees of activity."

The biological activity of CLA was first discovered in the late 1970s by researchers investigating the carcinogenic properties of grilled hamburger. They found that 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.

Strong health promise

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 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.

Boosting CLA levels in food

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 will be able to take in a 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.

The good trans fat

Although CLA is technically classified as a trans fat, it is unlike industrial processed trans fat. CLA is different because it is formed naturally in beef and dairy and does not share the harmful properties made through the hydrogenation of vegetable oils. Rather, this natural trans fat may be health promoting with an important role 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.

Learn more

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.

For more information on the CLA Network, visit www.CLAnetwork.com or email: CLAnetwork@gov.ab.ca.

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