The findings are based on results from a large-scale clinical trial investigating the health effects of fortified milk powder made by Fonterra's international consumer goods business New Zealand Milk, on Indian children aged one to four years.
The trial recruited almost 1,300 children, between 12 to 36 months of age, from a lower middle-class residential area in Dehli, India. The children were randomly assigned to four groups and asked to consume a minimum of two glasses of the assigned milk powder each day for one year.
The milk powders tested included Fernleaf 1+ (New Zealand Milk's full cream milk powder brand) with prebiotic milk-oligosaccharides and the probiotic DR10; Fernleaf 1+ without added prebiotics and DR10 (control); Fernleaf 1+ with Nutri-care, a special combination of vitamins and minerals including vitamins A, C, E and minerals iron, zinc, and selenium; and Fernleaf 1+ without Nutri-care (control).
In the first arm of the study, children who consumed the Fernleaf 1+ with Nutri-care were significantly better protected against diarrhoeal episodes and acute lower respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, compared to children who consumed a milk powder containing natural levels of the same nutrients.
The results showed that children consuming the milk powder fortified with the bundle of vitamins and minerals were 22 per cent better protected against diarrhoea, 18 per cent better protected against acute lower respiratory infections, 32 per cent better protected against severe respiratory infections, and 88 per cent better protected against measles.
World Health Organisation statistics show diarrhoeal disease is a leading cause of sickness and death globally among children aged two years and below. Diarrhoea leads to excessive water loss in children, causing dehydration, which can prove fatal. Loss of nutrients through diarrhoea can cause children to become weak and malnourished as well, affecting their physical growth and lowering their body's resistance to diseases.
Acute respiratory infection (ARI), which includes diseases such as pneumonia, is another leading cause of deaths worldwide in young children. In 2000, ARI killed approximately 2 million children under the age of five in developing countries alone.
The milk powder fortified with vitamins and minerals was also 3.42 times more effective in preventing the development of anaemia (both moderate and severe anaemia), said lead researcher Professor Sunil Sazawal, an expert in child nutrition and associate research professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in the US.
The children consuming Fernleaf 1+ with Nutri-care were 74 per cent better protected against the development of moderate anaemia, and 87 per cent better protected against the development of severe anaemia, said Sazawal, presenting the results at the World Congress of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition in Paris last night.
The milk fortified with the probiotic and prebiotics offered significant protection from dysentery (22 per cent) compared with the milk powder without the prebiotics and probiotic. This milk also offered children 16 per cent higher protection against the burden of severe illness (non-diarrhoeal disease).
Similarly, the children were 32 per cent better protected against sickness with high temperature, 7 per cent better protected against ear infection, and 6 per cent less likely to need antibiotics, said Sazawal.
A clinically meaningful reduction in iron deficiency anaemia of 35 per cent was also observed in the group of children drinking milk fortified with prebiotics and probiotic compared to children drinking the control milk, despite both groups receiving iron in the milks, he added.
"These findings will have importance for child health globally. It has provided clinical evidence that particular fortified milks can greatly impact on prevention of anaemia, the burden of common acute illnesses in childhood and their growth," said the researcher.
University of Queensland associate professor Professor Geoff Cleghorn, an independent member of the trial's expert advisory committee, added: "We are definitely excited about these very positive findings, which support the use of daily consumption of milk as one accessible way of practically preventing childhood disease worldwide. It also sets a standard for future clinical research on children's milk."
"Around the world consumers and regulatory authorities have expressed concern about health claims on children's milk products and the varying standards of evidence that back these claims. New Zealand Milk is committed to putting our products through the most rigorous research before making health claims. Through this study, we hope to set a benchmark for products supporting children's health and nutrition," said New Zealand Milk health platform manager Joanne Todd.
The active milk powders were developed in New Zealand and are exported by New Zealand Milk to the Middle East and Asia Pacific regions.