We've been hearing it for years now: consuming omega-3 fatty acids has a host of health benefits—including reducing our chances of heart disease and cancer, and lowering obesity rates.
Unfortunately, not everyone can consume omega-3 in its natural form (it occurs naturally in some fish, which not everyone likes; and nuts, a common allergen). As such, for the last several years, functional-food producers have been incorporating omega-3 into eggs and other products through animal feeds.
But what about milk?
Turns out, creating omega-3-enriched milk is not as simple as feeding high amounts of flaxseed to dairy cows. Traditionally, healthy fat from flaxseed is not able to survive intact through the cow, to the milk, to the person consuming the milk.
But with help from the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP), Regina's Oleet Processing (doing business as O&T Farms) was able to rise above—and well beyond—that challenge.
The challenge—and the science
Although cows love to eat flaxseed, the omega-3 in the flaxseed is unable to make it all the way to the milk produced.
That's because the ruminant stomach's microbial bacteria attack the polyunsaturated omega-3 fat prior to its digestion into the lower intestine.
To combat this problem, Oleet devised a novel way called "dry extrusion" to help protect the omega-3 fat as it passed through the cow's entire digestive system (watch this video describing the process).
Through dry extrusion, the flaxseed is simultaneously erupted and encapsulated with a protein barrier—creating a product Oleet dubbed "LinPRO-R."
Early days of using this process showed positive results. The cows appeared to enjoy eating the new feed, and Oleet saw measurably higher levels of omega-3 in the milk.
Despite this, the company had concerns about the long-term impact of the new feed on milk production levels. Moreover, were the cattle actually happy consuming it?
"Farming is a risk-averse business, and dairy cows are expensive," says Colleen Christensen, NRC IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor. "Dairy farmers don't want to stress or hurt their cows. They want happy cows, from an ethics point of view, and they really don't want to try new feed with their animals, unless you can show them that it won't hurt milk production."
"Realizing LinPRO-R could enhance the omega-3 profile of fluid milk, we needed to ensure it would not adversely affect either the dairy cow's gross production or the percentage of fat in the milk, which is how the farmer is compensated," says Rob Dreger, Director of Sales and Marketing at Oleet.
The only way to get answers was through laboratory testing.
Research funding from NRC IRAP
Oleet needed a champion to fund research on the biological effects and efficacy of LinPRO-R.
And so, the company turned to NRC IRAP to facilitate a research project conducted at the University of Saskatchewan. This partnership allowed a graduate student to do a year-long study on the effects of consuming the extruded flaxseed on cows' health, as well as how it affected milk production.
The project ran in a research setting from mid-2014 through mid-2015, using a small number of animals.
"It's important for a small, private company to associate with a university, where there are skilled people with the appropriate expertise and research infrastructure," says Christensen.
"Doing research at the University of Saskatchewan gave credibility to the results. It's all about sophistication, and this was a really sophisticated experiment."
Through the research at the University of Saskatchewan, it was determined that the new feed had no adverse production effects. As a result:
Oleet had the hard science it needed to enhance sales
Farmers (Oleet's customer base) had proof that the product was not only safe for their cattle, but that it didn't harm milk production
Consumers had access to an omega-3-enriched milk with disease-fighting properties
A graduate student received her MSc degree, and was later hired by Oleet
In other words, the project was a win-win-win-win for everyone: for Oleet, its customers and their cows, the end users, and the company's own workforce.
Following the positive lab results, sales of LinPRO-R doubled ($574,000 to $1.28 million) in a six-month period, with client sales in Canada and the United States growing substantially.
Meanwhile, increased production of omega-3-enriched milk across North America means even more food choice possibilities—including dairy products such as cheese, cream, ice cream, yogurt and butter.
Consequently, sales of LinPRO-R have continued to increase year over year—hitting $1.9 million in the 2017–18 fiscal year, representing a 22% increase over 2016–17.
"NRC IRAP was just the right program for us. The university research that was done supported the product in the marketplace, and the results show in the increase in sales of this product."
Much has happened for Oleet since the original research project.
The company is now working on export markets, having done commercial-level trials in the United States—with similar positive results to the university study. (Note: the US-based trials are not funded by NRC IRAP.)
"Dairy in the US is really big, where they have hundreds of thousands of animals, so getting market acceptance through research is the way to go," says Christensen. Customers are now using Oleet's feed to create and market a host of dairy products.
Oleet has increased production at their Regina facility by about 30% to keep up with demand in California and Wisconsin.
"As Oleet is a very forward-thinking company, it's exciting to see that companies they're selling to are so happy with the product that they're creating their own new product lines," says Christensen. "That's what NRC IRAP is all about—investing in companies like Oleet and helping them become more competitive."