U of A professor creates milk encyclopedia

The Milk Composition Database demystifies the popular drink

There’s an encyclopedia out there for just about everything: antiquity, mathematics, and even pop culture — now there’s an encyclopedia for milk.

U of A biological Sciences professor David Wishart created the Milk Composition Database (MCDB) which demystifies the components of milk. Five years in the making, the database contains detailed information on over two thousand metabolites found in cow milk.

For Wishart, the choice to create the encyclopedia largely stemmed from how crucial milk is to society.

“[Milk] is the one food product that can sustain a person for 5 to 6 years of their life,” Wishart said. “Our domestication of sheep and cows is what brought us from nomadic tribes to farming to villages and eventually to cities. The milk industry itself is worth half a trillion dollars a year. Historically, milk is why we are successful as humans.”

Wishart’s research has increased the scientific community’s understanding of the nutritional value of the various grades of milk. 

“Whole milk is probably the healthiest. It has the richest source of vitamins and the richest density of nutrition,” he said. “That’s the milk that babies get.” 

In the process of creating this database, the research team also came upon surprising finds, such as there being a variety of free amino acids in milk. It is well known that milk contains proteins; however, free amino acids are more readily ingested and used. 

Beyond discussing sugar alcohols and lipid patterns in milk, Wishart also revealed that grass-fed cows produce better milk than grain-fed cows. This knowledge can assist in creating better milk blends for consumption.

“There are certain chemical markers that we can see in milk that tell us if the cow was grass-fed or grain-fed,” Wishart said. “Understanding the composition of milk allows us to… start designing milk or blending milk so that it’s richer or poorer in certain components.”

For people with lactose intolerance or those who choose to forego milk for environmental reasons, the milk database also presents an interesting opportunity: Wishart believes it’s possible to make vegan ‘milk.’

“If you wanted to recreate milk in a synthetic way, you now have a recipe,” he said. “Although, it would be a very complicated recipe.”

As for future research, Wishart believes the MCDB is only a baseline for understanding milk. Chemical analysis could be performed on plant milk in the future, as well as on milk from other animals such as sheep or goats. 

By understanding what is nutritionally important in milk, the encyclopedia can also prove important in areas such as space travel. 

“Now that we understand what is nutritionally important in milk and why it sustains life so well, [this research] could potentially be used for astronauts travelling to Mars,” Wishart said. “It’s this liquid food that can be used for sustenance and general health.”

Tina Tai

Tina is the 2020-21 Magazine Editor and the 2019-20 Online Editor of The Gateway. She is a Psychology major and enjoys training her cats to give high-fives using behaviour modification methods. In her spare time she enjoys making sushi, watching murder mystery shows, and taking naps so long they may as well be sleeps.

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