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The CLA Network: What we've learned

July 7, 2010

A strong body of research establishing the health promise of natural ruminant fats is now in place, has gained global recognition, and has set the stage for broad future opportunities.

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"From little things, big things grow."

When scientists investigating the properties of grilled hamburger first identified conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in the early 80s, they likely had little inkling of the broad promise that would spawn from this unexpected discovery of an obscure food component. In fact, research into CLA was largely dormant for years after.

Today however, fueled in large part by major progress over the past decade, natural CLA is at the centre of a now substantial, multi-faceted and steadily growing body of research. The progress is fast approaching a 'tipping point' – it is set to make waves across the broad areas of nutrition, human health, agriculture and food industries, and potentially even food labeling requirements.

A leading player globally in this progress is the Canada-based CLA Network, which involves a number of researchers and institutions across the country and is linked to international expertise. Here's a snapshot of what CLA Network researchers have learned, particularly over the past three years of industry-supported research funding.

Understanding the natural power of CLA

One of the most important areas of CLA Network progress has been to understand the nature and role of CLA, including the fundamentals of how it is formed and the mechanisms that underlie its activity.

It is known that natural CLA is produced only by ruminant animals such as dairy and beef cattle and is found naturally in the milk and meat products of these animals. While over 20 different isomers or "types" of natural CLA have been identified, it is two of these – CLA 9,11 and CLA 10,12 – that have shown the strongest health promise and have been the focus of CLA Network research. CLA 9,11 is the most prominent form found in beef and dairy products.

Work by the network and others has confirmed that natural CLA contains antioxidant, anti-tumor and other health-boosting properties, with strong promise to deliver health benefits considered beyond nutrition and into the realm of "functional foods." This includes the potential to help prevent or fight a number of chronic health conditions – including cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer, obesity and kidney disease – as well as to improve bone density.

The research has included animal model and tissue culture studies, which have provided a basis for human clinical trials targeted over the next several years.

Vaccenic acid (VA) enters the picture

For most of the past decade, the majority of the work of CLA Network researchers has focused around CLA itself. However, in recent years, due in large part to discoveries made in the course of this research, their perspective has expanded to include a major concentration on a similar and related component: vaccenic acid (VA).

Like CLA, VA is a natural fatty acid produced by ruminant animals and found naturally in the milk and meat derived from these animals. It is also notable as a "pre-cursor" to CLA - after VA in food products is consumed, a portion is converted into CLA inside the human body upon interaction with a specific enzyme.

New research has indicated VA plays a significant role in the level of CLA available. This research has also produced breakthrough findings that vaccenic acid in its own right shows strong health enhancing potential comparable to, and perhaps even greater than, CLA.


A listing of key publications resulting from CLA Network human health research activity from 2008 to 2010.

  • Trans-11 vaccenic acid dietary supplementation induces hypolipidemic effects in JCR:LA-cp rats. Journal of Nutrition 2008 38(11):2117-22.)
  • Vaccenic acid favorably alters immune function in obese JCR:LA-cp rats. British Journal of Nutrition. 2009 Feb 16:1-11.
  • Human health benefits of vaccenic acid. Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism. 2009 Vol. 34, Number 5, 979-991.
  • Trans-11 vaccenic acid reduces hepatic lipogenesis and chylomicron secretion in the JCR:LA-cp rat. Journal of Nutrition. Vol. 139, No. 11, 2049-2054, Nov. 2009.
  • Vaccenic and Elaidic Acid Modify Plasma and Splenocyte Membrane Phospholipids and Mitogen-Stimulated Cytokine Production in Obese Insulin Resistant JCR: LA-cp Rats. Nutrients Journal. Special Issue "Phospholipid Nutrition", Page 181-197, Feb. 2010.
  • Intestinal Lipid Transport and Chylomicron Production: Possible Links to Exacerbated Atherogenesis in a Rodent Model of the Metabolic Syndrome. Atherosclerosis Supplements, 9(2008):69-76. Accepted 13 May 2008. (IF=4.2).
  • Beneficial effects of vaccenic acid on postprandial lipid metabolism and dyslipidemia: Impact of natural trans-fats to improve CVD risk. Lipid Technology. Vol. 22 No. 5. May 2010.

Latest progress

The latest CLA Network research has focused primarily on further understanding the health implications of CLA and VA, including the mechanisms that underlie their activity. Here are some examples of the latest key findings:

Striking benefits for lowering cholesterol and triglycerides. In this 16 week trial, in animal models, feeding of VA showed no negative effect on blood lipid profiles and was associated with reductions in triglyceride levels (more than 50 percent) total cholesterol levels (approximately 30 percent) and LDL cholesterol levels (approximately 25 percent) This study is the first to demonstrate beneficial dyslipidemic properties solely due to vaccenic acid, as opposed to diets that often contain numerous bioactive lipids.

Signals of high absorption when consumed in food. With growing evidence VA may displace bad fats and reduce chronic disease risk, one of the key questions is how much is actually absorbed when consumed through food products such as meat and milk. The study, performed in animals, was among the first to tackle this question and the results indicated VA obtained naturally through a meal has a significant rate of absorption in the intestine – over 1 percent, which is considered nutritionally significant for this fatty acid and its health effects.

The study was conducted using specifically designed diets containing VA, one of which included a beef meal. Researchers noted that because VA in both beef and dairy is the same and the levels are comparable, similar absorption of VA would be expected from dairy foods.

Slashing the inflammation risk factor for heart disease. In a three week animal model trial, researchers succeeded in reducing inflammation from elevated to normal levels by feeding dietary VA. The reduction in inflammation was substantial and clearly the result of feeding the dietary VA, the researchers noted. The findings are quite significant because inflammation is now recognized as an independent risk factor for heart disease.

New research underway. Several additional studies are both underway and planned as part of current CLA Network research funding, which is anchored by a 2008-2012 Program Grant from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) toward "Establishing the health benefits of ruminant trans fatty acids." Two examples include:

Female infertility associated with obesity. A new study to investigate how CLA may help fight against poly cystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which affects one in 10 women of childbearing age and is a leading cause of infertility. Women with PCOS and obesity are at higher risk for the development of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Obesity and related conditions. A new study to assess the ability of CLA and VA to fight obesity and related conditions such as type-2 diabetes and the metabolic syndrome.

More information on the web. While network research from 2008 to 2010 has focused heavily on human health components, past research also included strong advancements in areas including animal mechanisms, dairy production, beef production, product development and market research. Broader information on CLA Network research projects and results, including activity prior to 2008 is available at

Rehabilitating the image of animal fat

One of the major implications of CLA Network research is what it means for the health image of dairy and beef products. CLA and vaccenic acid stand as examples that there are very important distinctions between different types of animal fat in foods. Some, like CLA and VA, not only are not harmful but are likely very healthful.

They also stand as examples that there are equally important distinctions between different types of trans fat. Both CLA and VA are technically classified as trans fats, however these natural ruminant trans fats are dramatically different from a health point of view than the manmade, industrially processed types of trans fat that are rightly identified as harmful.

In the case of natural CLA, recognition of this distinction is a reason why health authorities in Canada, the U.S., and numerous other countries have decided not to include CLA in the trans fat calculations that appear on food labels.

VA is currently part of these calculations, but the hope is with growing knowledge of its 'good fat' status it too will be afforded the same exempt status as CLA. Because VA is estimated to contribute 70 to 80 percent of ruminant-based trans fat in the North American diet, this status change would be expected to have a dramatic impact on helping shift consumer perceptions to a more accurate health image of dairy and beef products.

Perspectives on progress

"With the results of our trials, we're very confident we're seeing not only the absence of negative effects but also clearly positive health effects related to CLA and vaccenic acid found in dairy and beef products. This can help to revitalize the health image of dairy and beef products, and drive numerous innovations spanning product development, nutrition and health"
  Dr. Spencer Proctor, CLA Network Science Lead

"We need to pay attention to the fact that we may have been barking up the wrong tree by targeting animal fats. The findings of the CLA Network are a great example that many of these fats are not harmful but in fact are healthful."
  Helen Bishop MacDonald, nutritionist and author

"CLA and vaccenic acid are showing great promise to become a valuable selling feature of dairy and beef products in the future. This can support the bottom line of producers and strengthen the long-term outlook of their industries."
  Bruce Beattie, producer and CLA Network Chair

"With advances in science, we're now getting a more complete picture of the health value of many common foods consumers have long enjoyed. What we're learning about the natural benefits in dairy and beef is an example that many of the leading health foods of the future may be ones that are already well familiar to us."
  Dr. Catherine Field, CLA Network nutrition researcher

"Our findings have the potential to positively enhance how consumers view the health image of beef and dairy products, which are an important source of many nutrients, including fats"
  Dr. Donna Vine, CLA Network nutrition researcher

"This research is helping us learn new, good things about dairy and beef that we didn't know before. It has the potential to provide a strong image boost from a marketing perspective, without requiring any change to the products themselves."
  Dr. Sven Anders, CLA Network market development researcher

New product potential

The ongoing knowledge generated by CLA Network progress is creating immediate opportunities to establish a more positive health image and increased demand for current beef and dairy products. It is also opening the door to new ways of marketing and developing these products.

This includes potential for everything from products that include CLA and vaccenic acid content declarations or related health claims, all the way to "enhanced" products that contain higher levels of these natural components. (Previous work by the CLA Network has shown that natural CLA levels can be increased by two- to four-fold in both milk and beef through relatively simple and practical production approaches such as dietary strategies.)

Past efforts by the CLA Network have investigated regulatory pathways to health claims and enhanced product opportunities. In a new major achievement, CLA (both natural and synthetic) very recently gained a positive published response from Health Canada, as part of an early assessment process that is a key stepping stone toward these opportunities. In the U.S. and Europe, there is already regulatory approved status for adding CLA to foods and there are expectations of a health claim opportunity to follow.

It's important to note that while the future outlook is bright, in Canada the current regulatory process still poses some key restrictions that researchers will need to work around related to vaccenic acid and also related to aspects of CLA in some populations such as children. CLA Network researchers are working to overcome these hurdles.

Good news for consumers, industry

For dairy and beef industries and the consumers of dairy and beef products, the good news is that the products they produce and enjoy are very likely even healthier than was previously known.

As further research uncovers more knowledge and confirms the promise established to date, there will be more reasons for consumers to feel good about dairy and beef products and the health value they are receiving, which has the potential to strengthen the demand for these products.

Communications progress

Throughout its evolution, the CLA Network has also delivered a multi-faceted communications program, to deliver information on network progress and research results to key internal and external stakeholders. Many of the stories produced through this program have received very good coverage in a range of media and other outlets, which speaks to the relevance and growing recognition of research progress.

A number of these materials, such as news releases, feature articles and reports, are available on the CLA Network website,

Strong industry support

At all stages of progress, the CLA Network has benefited greatly from strong support from dairy and beef industries.

Major support for a large portion of ongoing CLA and vaccenic acid research is provided through funding originally awarded through the Alberta Livestock Industry Development Fund (ALIDF) and now managed through the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA). CLA Network research has also been supported in part by the Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC), Alberta Milk and the Beef Information Centre (BIC).

New opportunities

The CLA Network was set up to foster growth. Looking to the future, CLA Network research has now advanced to a stage where there are new opportunities for connecting this ongoing body of work to broader picture initiatives that can help drive a next generation of progress.

For example, in Alberta, one such opportunity researchers involved with the CLA and vaccenic acid progress are strongly pursuing is the emerging Alberta Diet initiative. This multi-faceted effort includes a strong emphasis on research progress in chronic disease treatment and prevention through dietary approaches.

Reprintable with credit to the CLA Network.

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