December 7, 2006
Supporting beef producers and their industry with a stronger health image, higher demand and new product opportunities.
In the midst of all the complex science surrounding conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), one advantage is clear: beef cattle and the products they produce are very well suited to deliver this potentially valuable natural food component to consumers.
That fact is the basis of a unique opportunity for beef producers and their industry, says Bruce Beattie, a Sundre, Alta., farmer and chair of the CLA Network.
"CLA is showing promise as a fatty acid with many positive health benefits," says Beattie. "We know it's produced naturally by beef cattle and is a component of beef products. As the science progress continues, this is creating a fresh, positive message we can take to consumers about the health value of beef. It opens the door to stronger marketing opportunities for the beef products available today, and introduces the possibility of creating new products that are CLA enriched."
That type of effort is important to help the beef industry rebound from adversity it has faced in recent years, he notes. "CLA and similar health-based opportunities could be a nice shot in the arm down the road. The potential is there, and we know this is the type of thing we need to get ahead of and capitalize on as an industry."
Continued progress with the growing body of science that is confirming CLA potential on both the beef production and health fronts is critical to that goal, says Beattie. That's why in addition to running the Sundre operation, Beattie is chair of the CLA Network – a diverse group of scientists and professionals dedicated to helping the beef and dairy industries capture opportunities with CLA.
"With the CLA Network, everything is done with an eye to supporting the profitability of producers," says Beattie. "We want to increase the marketing power of beef. But we want to do that in a way that producers can benefit without taking on unproductive extra work or cost.
"Already, studies have shown that significant amounts of CLA are produced under typical production approaches, and CLA levels can be increased through simple changes to diet formulations and other practical strategies."
Founded in Canada, the CLA Network is a collaborative team from academia, industry and government, including representatives from many areas of expertise such as research, food industry, health and communications.
Current members include Alberta Agricultural Research Institute, Agriculture and Food Council, Alberta Livestock Industry Development Fund, Alberta Agriculture Food and Rural Development, University of Alberta, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Dairy Farmers of Canada, Alberta Milk, Beef Information Centre, Alberta Beef Producers and Teagasc Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority.
The network effort includes activity in six modules, including Beef Production, Dairy Production, Animal Mechanisms, Product Development and Market Research, and Communications.
One of the interesting findings of CLA Network research is that pastured animals are more likely to have high CLA content, notes Beattie.
"We know that grass particularly, and unfermented feeds in general, is one way that CLA is increased. So grass-fed beef cattle typically have higher levels of CLA. But that doesn't mean we have to go back to feeding our cattle how we did it 50 years ago. The research is identifying simple things like adding sunflower oil to modern diets that can produce a real jump in the CLA produced."
In many ways, that's what the CLA Network work is all about – applying the best of today's science to help make the most of a natural advantage that has always been there.
"It's clear that any benefit that is natural goes a long way with consumers today – that's a huge advantage for CLA," says Beattie. "Using sunflower seeds for example to increase that level of CLA can make up for cattle not getting as much of it from grass, and because it's still through a feed source, it's still a natural way to produce CLA."
It's a "back to the future" approach of using modern science and fine tuning modern production to nurture an age-old benefit. "We haven't always had the science to understand exactly what we've had for health value in our beef. But now that we can, it's very encouraging to know some of the things we've long felt about beef as a valuable part of a healthy diet really hold a lot of truth, and we can nurture those advantages without needing dramatic production changes. That can really help us today on the marketing end."
One of the key opportunities of further CLA progress is to help battle the negative perceptions about beef fat and fat in general, says Beattie.
Although CLA is technically a trans fat, it does not have any of the unhealthy characteristics associated with industrial processed trans fat. In recognition that CLA is a natural, beneficial fat, Health Canada did not include CLA as part of the total trans fat value in the new nutrition label.
"The constant negative perception that has grown for quite a while around fat and trans fat has been a major obstacle for beef," says Beattie. "Particularly from a producers' perspective, you get tired of hearing about it and frustrated by the lack of understanding. One of the big positives of CLA is it gives us a new way to respond to this whole issue around fat and how fat is bad for you. The perception is one thing, but in actual fact there are many things in natural fats that are vital to your health – CLA is a great example."
Consumer education will become an increasing focus as scientific progress with CLA continues. The CLA Network has a strong communications component to help keep stakeholders up to date on progress, and a number of network members are very active public nutrition educators.
"One of the problems when you try to bring science and diet together is trying to explain things in a way that is scientifically sound and that people can understand," says Beattie. "The research progress helps us understand not just what the benefits are, but exactly why those benefits happen. That gives us a base to develop simple, clear messages for consumers."
As a long time beef and dairy producer, as well as a consumer, Beattie says its satisfying to see what the emerging science is uncovering.
"It strikes me that the products from beef and dairy the human race has been eating for a few million years, and it seems there's good reason for that. These aren't products that have been made in a test tube or heavily processed and manufactured."
CLA Network researchers have been very active in studying CLA health benefits, the impact on animals and the methods of increasing CLA in beef products.
The most advanced area of CLA human health research is cancer prevention and treatment. CLA's cancer-fighting effect has held up in all the major animal models of cancer that are used for testing drug efficacy. These include primarily models for breast cancer and the colorectal cancers, along with models for some forms of leukemia and liver cancer, including hepatoma.
Cardiovascular disease is another key focus. Early studies have indicated feeding animals CLA improves the profile of fats in the blood. In particular, indications are CLA may play a role in reducing high levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), which are associated with heart disease. There are also signs that CLA may influence an inflammatory-related mechanism that reduces the pathology of heart disease.
Further potential benefits have emerged related to obesity diabetes, kidney disease and bone density.
Synthetic forms of CLA have been developed for both commercial supplements and research purposes. However many leading scientists believe the CLA found naturally in beef and dairy products may offer the best avenue for developing CLA health potential.
This is because while there are many different isomers, or types, of CLA, the two studied most extensively and recognized for health potental are isomers, CLA 9,11 and CLA 10,12 – the ones found at highest levels in beef and dairy. Beef and dairy has also been confirmed to include vaccenic acid, a "precursor" that is converted into CLA 9,11 by a natural human enzyme once consumed.
Because CLA is already found naturally in all beef products, any health benefits confirmed through research have potential to bring immediate marketing advantages, notes Beattie.
"It a great advantage that we have an opportunity to improve the image and marketability of our products without requiring any changes to those products or how they're produced."
More research is needed to determine what levels of CLA are required to produce health benefits. But indications are beef products already contain significant levels, and those can be doubled or tripled with practical feeding strategies.
"One of the major opportunities is to develop new products with enhanced levels of CLA, including products that may qualify to carry a health claim," says Beattie. "CLA could become something like Omega 3 from a marketing standpoint, or even better."
Reprintable with credit. Refer to the CLA Network Reprint Guide