The unique qualities of alpha-lactalbumin

As a scientist focused on human nutrition, I’ve spent decades studying protein and its effects on health. One of the proteins that fascinates me most, and which holds enormous promise, is alpha-lactalbumin.

Donald K. Layman
Donald K. Layman Professor Emeritus, Nutrition, University of Illinois
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Published: Mar. 21. 2019

There are plenty of other people who are similarly interested in this whey protein. That’s because new technologies transforming the food-processing sphere have isolated alpha-lactalbumin from the natural blend of whey proteins. This means that we can more easily study its specific effects, and that food and beverage manufacturers are able to add it to products as an isolated protein. But why would they want to? The answer will become clear if we explore what alpha-lactalbumin is, and how it can enhance human health.

Making milk
Alpha-lactalbumin is one of the main proteins of milk’s whey fraction. It is produced by cells lining the breast’s milk ducts, and it helps to form lactose, the primary milk sugar, which in turn drives milk volume. So its first role is central to milk production, but let’s be clear that this is a multi-tasking protein. It contains bioactive peptides and essential amino acids that are crucial for infant nutrition – and, as we are finding, seem to have significant benefits for adults, too.

Creating better infant formula
For human babies, human milk is the optimal food, and immense effort continues to go into trying to mimic it with infant formula. This is an enormous challenge! To this end, alpha-lactalbumin is extremely helpful. One of many differences between human and cow milk is that alpha-lactalbumin constitutes almost a quarter of the total protein in human milk but only 3.5% of the protein in bovine milk. It’s now established that supplementing infant formula with extra alpha-lactalbumin does indeed help babies’ growth and development. Its effectiveness means that formula can be less protein-rich, bringing its protein level more in line with human milk. 

Supplemental alpha-lactalbumin also improves babies’ intestinal health and immune responses ¬– both of which are vital for the immature gut of the newborn – and increases the absorption of essential trace elements like iron and zinc. Overall, it provides formula-fed infants with benefits more similar to those provided by breast milk.

Benefits for adults
Some of the benefits for babies also extend to adults, and the range for potential adult applications is starting to become clear. Here we must consider some of the individual building blocks of alpha-lactalbumin. For example, it is abundant in the amino acid tryptophan, which promotes formation of the neurotransmitter serotonin and sleepiness, and is also being investigated as an anti-depressant and anti-epileptic agent. Its plentiful cysteine content is valued for an ability to switch on the body’s production of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant and immune regulator. And its leucine content also promotes muscle growth. 

As you can imagine, these functions could be particularly helpful for older people dealing with age-related decline of immune function and skeletal muscle mass. These are also much-needed benefits for people of any age with illnesses such as HIV or cancer.

New possibilities
For the future, one space that many scientists are watching is the slew of recent evidence on how gut health impacts overall health. Here, too, it seems alpha-lactalbumin can help, with some of its amino acids and bioactive compounds positively influencing the microbiome.

With so many potential applications, how do food and beverage manufacturers incorporate alpha-lactalbumin into their products? Like other whey proteins, it has a clean flavor profile, is water soluble and heat-resistant. These properties allow it to be incorporated into a wide range of food and beverages. Notably, the purity of alpha-lactalbumin that’s now available means that it can be added as a stand-alone ‘star’ ingredient, rather than as just one component of general whey protein. Due to its cost, these are likely to always be high-end medical or specialty health products.

I also see a role for it to enhance lower-quality protein products, such as those derived purely from plants. Filling their gaps, so to speak, with high-quality protein like alpha-lactalbumin could be an attractive proposition.

These are exciting times indeed for specialty food and beverage manufacturers and their consumers, all of whom can benefit from the years of research behind alpha-lactalbumin. It’s rewarding for me to see the slog of lab work being translated into products that directly help improve people’s health, from the youngest of babies to the most senior members of society.

Arla Foods Ingredients supports the WHO recommendation for exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life and continued breastfeeding up to the age of two or beyond in combination with nutritionally appropriate complementary foods.

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