X-rays unlock milk’s fatty secrets

"By unlocking the detailed structure of milk we have the potential to create milk loaded with fat soluble vitamins and brain building molecules for premature babies, or a drink that slows digestion so people feel fuller for longer," says Stefan Salentinig. (Credit: Peter Dutton/Flickr)

Scientists are using X-rays to take a closer look at the detailed structure of milk and how its fats interact with our digestive system. What they’re learning could provide a blueprint to create new milk products, including formula for premature babies.

“By unlocking the detailed structure of milk we have the potential to create milk loaded with fat-soluble vitamins and brain-building molecules for premature babies, or a drink that slows digestion so people feel fuller for longer,” says Stefan Salentinig of Monash University Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

“We could even harness milk’s ability as a ‘carrier’ to develop new forms of drug delivery.”

Milk’s unique structure

By chemically recreating the digestive system in a glass beaker and adding cows’ milk, the team found that milk has a unique structure—an emulsion of fats, nutrients, and water forms a structure that enhances digestion.

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The researchers used specialized instruments at the Australian Synchrotron to simulate digestion. Enzymes and water were added to milk fat to break it down, and the synchrotron’s small angle X-ray scattering beam showed that when digested, the by-products of milk become highly organized.

The structure is similar to a sponge, Salentinig says.

“We knew about the building blocks of milk and that milk fat has significant influence on the flavor, texture, and nutritional value of all dairy food. But what we didn’t know was the structural arrangement of this fat during digestion.

“We found that when the body starts the digestion process, an enzyme called lipase breaks down the fat molecules to form a highly geometrically ordered structure. These small and highly organized components enable fats, vitamins, and lipid-soluble drugs to cross cell membranes and get into the circulatory system Salentinig says.

The next phase of the research will see the team work with nutritionists to better make the link between these new findings and dietary outcomes, and utilize these findings to design and test improved medicines.

The Australian Research Council funded the research, which appears in the journal ACS Nano.

Source: Monash University