Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
February 5, 1999

Better butter may be on the horizon

by Brian Meyer, Agriculture Information

Okay, you got milk. But what kind of milk you got? Gary Lindberg will bet his butter knife he can identify milk that's lower in saturated fat.

"Many people try to avoid saturated fat in their diets because it raises their cholesterol," said Lindberg, an ISU animal scientist. "Still, Americans consume large amounts of dairy products like cheese and butter that can contain high levels of saturated fat."

Lindberg analyzed hundreds of milk samples from 230 cows over a year's time. He found that milkfat varied tremendously from one cow to the next. The milk with the lowest saturated fat came from younger cows or those early in their lactation cycle.

"Once we knew which cows produced low-saturated-fat milk, we believed we could segregate the milk from the rest of the herd's and use it to make healthier dairy foods," Lindberg said.

To test the theory, Lindberg and his colleagues made butter from high-saturated-fat and low-saturated-fat milk samples. "On average, butter has 67 percent saturated fat. In our samples, saturated fat was as low as 47 percent and as high as 73 percent."

The low-saturated-fat butter performed significantly better than regular butter on an index that ranks the propensity of foods to raise cholesterol.

Lindberg also tested the butters' spreadability, hardness and melting temperatures. The main difference? The low- saturated-fat butter spreads easier.

Food scientist Earl Hammond, one of the creators of ISU's low-saturated-fat soybean oil, said the project shows it is possible to produce milkfat that's less likely to raise cholesterol.

"That's exciting," he said. "So far, farmers haven't had any incentive to produce healthier milk because there's been no market. I think we've shown there are ways this market could be created."

Lindberg has talked to some dairy producers about the project.

"One told me that an incentive of 50 cents to a dollar per hundred-weight would be enough for some producers to start adding on to their milk houses so they could collect low- saturated-fat milk."

The researchers would like to conduct tests to see whether eating dairy products made from low-saturated-fat milk actually lowers cholesterol in people and lab animals.

Low-saturated-fat dairy products may not become the dairy industry's bread and butter tomorrow, but Lindberg said he can envision large markets to supply low-sat mozzarella for pizza or low-sat butter to drizzle on popcorn.

He also thinks eventually there will be uses for high- saturated-fat milk. That milk could boost the creaminess of premium ice cream or chocolate confections from yummy to sinful -- an effect achieved now by adding cocoa butter. The milk probably would cost less than the cocoa butter, too.

"It's almost like we've discovered a new source of fat, which is always something that interests food processors," he said.

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