The whole-food effect: a unique dairy matrix 

Milk and dairy products have beneficial health effects well beyond the simple nutrients they contain.

“You can look at each of the nutrients found in milk and dairy products and see the benefits they have on human health,” says Laura Anderson, Head of Nutrition. “But now we know the benefits go much further, because the nutrients and the physical structure of various dairy products interact with each other to provide even more nutritional advantages than you might expect.”  

The structure and composition, and the way that the components interact with each other, impact the way the nutrients are digested and absorbed.

What is a dairy food matrix? 

Nutritionists have traditionally studied specific nutrients, but now we know that any food is more than just the sum of its parts. The nutrient content alone doesn’t necessarily predict the health properties of a food – there’s a ‘whole food effect’ at work in your body.  

The ‘food matrix’ is way of describing this effect:

  • A food’s physical structure
  • Its nutrient content
  • The bioactives it contains 
  • How these interact 

How the physical structure, nutrients and bioactives interact is particularly important. It impacts how easily your body can access or absorb the energy and nutrients a food contains.
It can impact how full you feel after eating the food, and it has a role to play in how the food is digested and the speed at which the energy and nutrients are released. 

The whole food effect makes milk and dairy products uniquely nutritious:

Each individual nutrient found in milk has its own role to play in the human body. Milk and dairy products contribute to meeting the body’s requirements for important nutrients including protein, calcium and vitamins. There are very few, if any, other foods that can naturally provide this unique combination of nutrients, created by the dairy matrix.

Milk and dairy products also contain a complex mix of bioactive compounds that are important for good health, including

  • Bioactive peptides 
  • Lactoferrin 
  • Complex milk lipids
  • Milk oligosaccharides
  • Probiotics (added to some dairy products)

You can look at each of the nutrients found in milk and dairy products and see the benefits they have on human health.

Lauar Anderson, Global Head of Nutrition, fonterra

The whole food effect for milk and dairy products

The whole food effect is one reason why getting your nutrients from whole foods generally leads to better outcomes than getting your nutrients from supplements. When you eat a food, you get not just one or two individual vitamins, but a wide range of macro and micronutrients, including vitamins and minerals, that can improve how you absorb and digest the natural goodness from the food. One of the benefits of the dairy matrix is that it improves the bioavailability of the nutrients, helping your body more easily absorb the natural goodness of milk. 

Milk is enormously versatile – drink it on its own, or turn it into cheese or yoghurt. Each one has a distinctly different physical structure, ranging from liquid milk through to hard cheeses.

Because they have different physical structures, the dairy matrix varies between the various types of dairy products.  

The dairy matrix supports healthy blood pressure

Dairy foods can support healthy blood pressure and metabolic health, thanks to the dairy matrix. The unique dairy micronutrient composition, quality protein, and biopeptides together provide “combined protective effects”. 

Milk consumption is associated with
a lower risk of hypertension (high blood pressure). This is important because hypertension if left untreated can lead to kidney disease, heart disease and stroke. 

Consuming milk can also improve
metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of symptoms that together increase your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. The symptoms of metabolic syndrome include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the torso and high cholesterol levels. Milk consumption is associated with “markedly reduced prevalence” of metabolic syndrome, and drinking milk improved participants’ metabolic health markers.  

Milk calcium is highly bioavailable 

Bioavailability is how quickly a nutrient can be utilised by your body, and how much of it your body absorbs. It asks, how ‘available’ is the nutrient once you’ve consumed it? 

The bioavailability of some of the nutrients in milk, particularly calcium, is
relatively high compared to other foods. It helps that milk does not contain substances that can reduce bioavailability, such as phytates and oxalates, which are often found in plant-based foods. 

Plus, not all calcium is equal. In one study, older women drank either milk or a calcium enriched soy alternative. Although the amount of calcium they consumed from the two drinks was the same, milk was
significantly better at preventing loss of bone mineral density when compared to the soy drink. This demonstrates one of the ways the effect of milk is greater than its individual nutrients, making it compare well to other sources of calcium. 

The cheese matrix can help support your heart health  

The cheese matrix seems to create a favourable impact on human health. One study showed that cheese consumption is associated with a 7% lower risk of stroke, which is the second-leading cause of global deaths. Cheese is also associated with a lower risk of other cardiovascular diseases, including heart failure and coronary heart disease

Why is cheese positively associated with cardiovascular health? It appears that the interactions between the physical structure of cheese and its nutrients modify the impact of the saturated fat on blood lipids. The combination of calcium, phosphorus, the milk fat globule membrane, and starter cultures seem to change how the fat affects your blood

Yoghurt is associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes  

Yogurt has its own unique structure – a soft creamy texture, more solid than milk but more liquid than cheese. As a result of its structure, yoghurt has a food matrix that results in a longer gastrointestinal transit time than that for milk. This means it takes longer to move through your body, helping you absorb the nutrients and reducing gastrointestinal upset, which is why yoghurt is well tolerated by many populations who are not able to digest lactose.  

Eating yoghurt is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, according to a meta-analysis of over 400,000 people. That research found a 14% lower risk of type 2 diabetes in people who ate between 80g and 125g of yoghurt each day, when compared with people who ate no yoghurt. 

“Eating natural whole foods is the optimal way to get the nutrients you need in your diet,” Laura says. “Dairy products are a great example – they show how whole foods deliver nutrients effectively and give you a wide range of health benefits.”