Issue 52

Whey strategies for China’s demographic challenge

New studies document the benefits of whey protein for young and old

China’s rapidly aging population and high rate of child obesity will have a major impact on the nation’s health in the years ahead. Clinical studies suggest that whey proteins could be part of the solution.

Between 2014 and 2050, the proportion of people above the age of 65 is forecast to grow from 9.6% to 26.8% of the Chinese population. With that comes an increased risk of health conditions, such as age-related loss of muscle mass and strength – known as sarcopenia – and type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is also among the risk factors for the increasing number of overweight and obese children, which, according to Pediatric Obesity journal, went up 40% from 2000 to 2013. By 2025, the journal predicts 48.5 million Chinese children will be overweight – the highest number in the world.

The right combination for staying fit and active
Speaking at the annual nutrition seminar hosted by Arla Foods Ingredients in Beijing, Dr Leigh Breen from University of Birmingham, UK shed light on clinical studies that have documented the effect of whey protein on sarcopenia. Combined with physical exercise, regular whey protein intake helps the elderly remain active and independent for longer.

Improved physical strength in later life further reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, typically caused by insulin resistance – the condition where insulin is no longer able to regulate blood glucose levels. Whey proteins may have a beneficial effect here, too, says Peter Schouw Andersen, head of science and sales development at Arla Foods Ingredients:

“Acute clinical studies indicate that whey protein reduces the blood glucose response after a meal. However, there is still a need for long-term studies to confirm this.”

Clinical documentation of whey ingredients means a lot to Chinese food manufacturers. Since the introduction of the Chinese regulation on Food for Special Medical Purposes in 2014, the market has grown for whey-containing foods that target the specific nutritional needs of older consumers.

Early life nutrition with a long-term effect
Another key opinion leader in the seminar’s line-up of international speakers, Dr Hans Demmelmair from Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich presented research findings that point to the importance of early life nutrition for long-term health.

Today, it is widely accepted that high weight gain during infancy increases the likelihood of childhood obesity. Studies show that conventional infant formulas with a high protein content can cause formula-fed infants to put on significantly more weight than breast-fed infants of the same age.

“We now know that protein intake during infancy has an impact on weight during childhood and beyond,” says Jakob Madsen Pedersen, Arla Foods Ingredients’ paediatric business development manager.

“Dr Demmelmair’s work shows that low-protein infant formula can give a weight gain closer to that of breast-fed infants.”

Through the addition of the whey protein fraction alpha-lactalbumin, it is possible to lower the protein content of infant formula while improving overall quality. Both the amino acid profile and protein composition are closer to that of human milk.

Regulation to streamline infant formula brands
Such knowledge is particularly valuable in China. Today the world’s biggest market for infant formula, it accounts for 50% of global sales.

But a new regulation will soon reduce the 2,000 infant formula products currently on the market. Before long, manufacturers will be limited to selling only three brands per manufacturing site – each brand comprising products for stage one, two and three. The goal is to improve food safety and ensure manufacturers do not market several brands based on a single formulation.

“The large number of infant formula brands in China has made it difficult for consumers to make a choice. In the future, manufacturers will have to base each brand on a different recipe that uses ingredients with scientifically documented effects,” Pedersen explains.

“This is clearly an area where Arla Foods Ingredients can provide support,” he adds.

Around 200 representatives from Chinese business attended the two-day 2016 nutrition seminar in Beijing – up around 15% from 2015. Plans for next year’s seminar are now underway.

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