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Nutritional benefits and probiotic effects of dairy for healthy ageing
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How dairy’s nutrient-dense profile can reinforce ‘food as medicine’ and promote holistic health

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The relationship between food and health is not a new concept.

In fact, more than 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates stated, “all disease begins in the gut”. In recent years, the concept of ‘food as medicine’ has regained considerable traction among health professionals and consumers alike. However, the notion that the foods we consume can have medicinal effects is not new. The scientific community has been working to uncover and substantiate these claims with robust research for decades.

Dairy and dairy products have been mostly relegated to the sidelines in discussions of superfoods and are often maligned as detrimental to health. But attitudes appear to be changing as mounting evidence positions dairy as a nutritional powerhouse with potential therapeutic benefits. 

Photo - Karen Munday

“Dairy's profile as a nutrient-dense food is inarguable. Each serving is packed with an array of essential nutrients that are foundational to human health, positioning dairy as an ideal choice for consumers seeking holistic health benefits,” says Dr Karen Munday, Senior Research Scientist in the Health and Nutrition Science team at the Fonterra Research and Development Centre (FRDC) in New Zealand.

“High-quality protein from dairy provides all nine essential amino acids necessary for bodily functions such as muscle repair and growth, while the fatty acids found in dairy can act as building blocks for cell membranes, brain and nerve tissue.”

Nutrient density: A symphony of essential nutrients​ 

Calcium, the cornerstone mineral of dairy, is crucial for bone strength and structure, while potassium supports nerve function and blood pressure regulation. Vitamin D, often fortified in dairy products, is vital for calcium absorption and immune function. These nutrients synergistically contribute to a robust and resilient body, making dairy a cornerstone ingredient in the diet for people of all ages. 

AnleneTM​, a milk brand which targets adults, has published extensively over the years to demonstrate the benefits of dairy for bone, joint and muscle health. A 2020 study showed the benefit of consuming a multi-nutrient fortified milk drink, coupled with exercise, on a range of health indices.1

The supplement contained 9.1g of dairy protein per serve, plus other nutrients including milk fat globulin membrane (MFGM), calcium and vitamin D. The supplemented group improved several functional performance indices significantly more than the control group, and also saw significant improvements in lean body mass and bone metabolism. 

Whey protein: A BCAA powerhouse for muscle health​ 

Consumers associate several health benefits with protein consumption, such as promoting muscle growth and maintenance, as well as aiding weight management.2

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“Casein and whey are the two primary proteins in milk, and both are considered complete proteins, meaning they provide all essential amino acids, including the muscle-building branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine,” says Simon Gilmour, Senior Research Scientist in the Health and Nutrition Science team at the FRDC.

“Whey is a fast-digesting protein, meaning that it delivers BBCAAs to the blood stream, quickly making them available for the body to use. This, coupled with its high leucine content makes it an excellent choice for stimulating muscle protein synthesis, essential for muscle development and post-exercise recovery.

“As such, whey protein is a valuable dietary addition for those engaged in muscle-intensive activities, from athletes to bodybuilders, as well as for individuals seeking muscle maintenance or growth, like older adults facing muscle degeneration due to sarcopenia. Casein on the other hand, as a slow-digesting protein, may be preferred for weight management by promoting satiety and a feeling of fullness in the stomach,” adds Gilmour.

Fermented dairy: A probiotic powerhouse for gut health

The art of fermentation transforms dairy into a live matrix of probiotics that confer a spectrum of health benefits. Fermented dairy products like yogurt, kefir, and certain cheeses become enriched with live bacteria that can enhance the microbiota within the gut. These microorganisms have been shown to improve lactose digestion, enhance nutrient absorption, and strengthen the immune system. Moreover, they may play a role in mitigating conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Consumer acceptance of probiotics as a key ingredient to good gut health is well established. Emerging research also points to the influence of gut flora on mental health through the gut-brain axis. Regular consumption of fermented dairy may contribute to improved mood and cognitive function, demonstrating the profound impact of diet on mental as well as physical health. Recent studies (currently under review for publication) using Fonterra probiotic strain HN001TM​ have shown that the probiotics reduce stress and improve happiness over time.3

Milk Fat Globule Membrane (MFGM): A frontier for cognitive and cardiovascular health​ 

“MFGM is a complex phospholipid tri-layer intersected with bioactive glycolipids, glycoproteins, and carbohydrates that surround the fat globules in milk and is a subject of growing interest in the scientific community,” says Dr Maher Fuad, Health and Nutrition Sciences Manager at the FRDC. 

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“Research indicates that MFGM components may have neuroprotective effects, supporting brain development and cognitive function, particularly in infants and potentially in ageing adults. Additionally, MFGM has been associated with stress reduction and improved cholesterol metabolism, suggesting a role in cardiovascular health,” adds Dr Fuad. 

“The intricate composition of MFGM harbours a wealth of bioactive compounds whose health benefits are only beginning to be appreciated. The interaction of these compounds with human physiology is a promising area of research that may lead to groundbreaking discoveries in nutrition science. With an increasing number of studies focusing on MFGM, the future may hold novel dairy-based interventions for a range of health issues,” says Simon Gilmour.

It has been postulated that the combination of MFGM with probiotic strains found in dairy can enhance their health benefits. MFGM may impact the metabolism of the probiotics to enhance their survival in the gut. Higher survival rates would positively impact immunity and could improve cognitive function through the gut-brain axis. The exact mechanism of interaction between the probiotics and MFGM is not clearly understood, but MFGM may have a prebiotic-like effect on the probiotics.4

Dairy in the diet: Practical implications for healthy ageing​ 

“With the growing ageing population, the demand for foods and supplements formulated for older adults is on the rise, targeting areas such as cognition, metabolic health and mobility. Incorporating dairy into one's diet can be both enjoyable and beneficial. Regular consumption of dairy can contribute to the development and maintenance of a healthy skeletal system, reducing the risk of bone-related conditions like osteoporosis in the elderly,” says FRDC’s Dr Munday.

“The value of dairy in bone health was demonstrated through a study undertaken on elderly care residents in Australia.5 ​The study concluded that increasing dairy intake in these older adults from 2.0 to 3.5 servings a day significantly decreased their risk of falls and fractures,” adds Dr Munday.

Embracing the potential of dairy

Dairy products are more than just a staple food; they are a conduit for health and vitality. As researchers continue to explore the intricate ways in which dairy can serve as ‘food as medicine’, consumers, healthcare providers, and fellow scientists should continue to recognise and embrace the therapeutic potential of dairy.

Whether it's through the nutrient-rich profile of milk, the muscle-supporting power of whey protein, the probiotic richness of fermented products, or the promising bioactive compounds in MFGM, dairy stands as a testament to the harmony between nutrition and health.


1.​ Daly, R. M.; Gianoudis, J.; De Ross, B.; et al. (2020). Effects of a multinutrient-fortified milk drink combined with exercise on functional performance, muscle strength, body composition, inflammation, and oxidative stress in middle-aged women: a 4-month, double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial.​ The American journal of clinical nutrition, 112(2), 427–446.
2.​ Mintel. 2024. What’s next for the high-protein trend?
3.​ Clinical Trial. Effects of a Probiotic on Aspects of Mental Wellness.
4.​ Kosmerl, E.; Rocha-Mendoza, D.; Ortega-Anaya, J.; et al. (2021). Improving Human Health with Milk Fat Globule Membrane, Lactic Acid Bacteria, and Bifidobacteria.​ Microorganisms, 9(2), 341.
5.​ Iuliano, S.; Poon, S.; Robbins, J.; et al. (2021). Effect of dietary sources of calcium and protein on hip fractures and falls in older adults in residential care: cluster randomised controlled trial.​ BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 375, n2364.