Dr. Yoav Livney: We are hoping to enrich non-fat milk and other low-fat food products with vitamin D and other essential health-promoting nutraceuticals – such as vitamins A and E, minerals and antioxidants – lacking in many people’s diet.Yoav Livney knows his way around the dairy case in the supermarket. In fact, as the cheese product development manager in the 1990s at one of Israel’s biggest dairies – Strauss – he participated in the development some of the country’s most loved edibles – like ‘Gamadim’ fruity-cheese yogurt pudding snacks for kids, ‘Ski’ white cheese, and ‘Symphonia’ five percent fat cream cheese.
He even got his Masters degree in Wisconsin, America’s ‘dairy land’. So it was only natural that when he gained his PhD from the Technion’s Food Engineering and Biotechnology Department, and decided to pursue a career in academic research, it would focus on milk proteins.
Fast forward to 2007 and meet Dr. Livney, back at the Technion as a researcher with a breakthrough innovation – a method to deliver health-promoting nutrients using casein micelles, protein particles naturally present in milk, as carriers. The breakthrough could lead to low-fat or non-fat foods that contain nutrients now present only in fat-containing foods, and could be used to enrich foods with other important nutraceuticals like vitamins and antioxidants, while protecting them from degradation and improving their bioavailability.
“Dairy products have always been close to my heart,” said Livney, speaking from his Haifa Lab.
In his study, which was published in the scientific journal Food Hydrocolloids, Livney, his MSc student Efrat Semo, and Dr. Dganit Danino who provided electron micrographs, examined casein micelles. These are nano-sized particles of casein,the main protein present in milk. The micelles are responsible for the transfer of body building nutrients, primarily calcium and protein, from mother to baby.
For example, cows milk contains 30-35g of protein per liter. Casein, which accounts for about 80% of milk protein, is organized in micelles.
“My basic idea was, since casein micelles naturally function as nanocapsules, let’s see if we can load some more ‘goodies’ like nutraceuticals inside them, to make them even more nourishing,” he told ISRAEL21c.
As a test case, Livney and his research team chose to encapsulate vitamin D which is essential for calcium metabolism, “just to prove that we could encapsulate oil-soluble molecules in a non-fat product using the casein micelles.”
Livney and Semo first formed a solution that did not contain micelles by using soluble casein. When vitamin D was added to the solution, it bound to the casein. And when calcium and phosphate, in the amounts normally found in milk, were added to the now vitamin D-enriched casein, the proteins reorganized into micelles very similar to those found naturally in milk. The difference: they were now enriched with significant amounts of vitamin D. Replacing only 0.6% of the casein in milk with these enriched micelles would provide one third of the recommended daily intake of this important vitamin within a single glass of milk.
“It’s very important that the micelles we produced were almost identical to the natural micelles found in milk – especially if you want to deliver hydrophobic nutraceuticals into food products, particularly fat-free food products,” said Livney, adding that in this way they could be easily incorporated into dairy products, without changing the product appearance, taste and texture.
Which is exactly what Livney intends to do.
“We are hoping to enrich non-fat milk and other low-fat food products with vitamin D and other essential health-promoting nutraceuticals – such as vitamins A and E, minerals and antioxidants – lacking in many people’s diets,” he said. “This could improve our diets without changing our eating habits.”
He adds that they also plan to develop the technology to enable mass-production of such micelles.
“We’ve developed the process and already have a provisional patent on it. We’re in contact with various potential commercial partners, and have a few interested parties,” Livney said. He estimates that foods utilizing this technology could reach the marketplace within five years.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Livney is back in the lab conducting further testing and improvements of his technology.
“We’re continuing the research now, and recently received more funding for it. We’re going to look at other important nutraceuticals in addition to vitamin D.
His team is also studying whether, once ingested, the tiny size of the micelles and the natural structure of the casein will facilitate an improved absorption/uptake of the nutrients they contain.
While the benefactors of his research may be dairy consumers around the world, Livney is also focused closer to home, where he and his family are avid dairy product consumers
“We go through about two quarts of milk a day,” he said. And he added that if his new technology makes it to the marketplace, “my kids would be even happier drinking it with their morning cereals”