AgResearch senior scientist Dr Linda Samuelsson says results of the trial to test the benefits of sheep milk for human consumption should be available next year.
In what is believed to be a world first, AgResearch is about to begin a clinical trial to test the benefits of sheep milk for human digestion.
The trial, which will see AgResearch scientists working alongside those at the Auckland University's Liggins Institute, with support from Spring Sheep Milk Co in the central North Island and Blue River Dairy in Southland, comes at a time of rapid growth for the dairy sheep industry in New Zealand.
Some people suffer from digestive issues with milk, and work by AgResearch has demonstrated sheep milk could offer advantages for some in terms of easier digestion and improved nutrition.
"Based on the literature we have seen, there has been no human clinical trial like this before measuring the digestibility of sheep milk," says AgResearch senior scientist Dr Linda Samuelsson.
"We will be working with people who say they have some difficulty digesting milk. They will be asked to consume a specified amount, and we'll be looking at how they feel after drinking and measuring their digestion using blood and breath tests."
Spring Sheep Milk Co marketing and innovation director Andrea Wilkins says one recent study compared the protein digestibility of sheep and cow milk — with results suggesting sheep milk proteins are more readily digested and are a better source of essential amino acids.
"Taking into account the research to date along with consumer feedback we've received, we know that sheep's milk is great for those who are sensitive to cow's milk. So, we're really excited about what this clinical trial means for us and for the New Zealand sheep milk industry as a whole."
Liggins Institute research fellow Dr Amber Milan says the trial subjects will be asked to drink both sheep and cow milk.
"Sheep milk is very different from cow milk. We know that it has more nutrients per glass: more protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. For example, sheep milk has almost twice the level of calcium and zinc, when compared to cow milk.
There are also differences in the protein and fat types which we think will alter the digestive properties of sheep milk."
Dr Samuelsson says the trial is expected to start this month and results should be available early next year.
"The aim is to provide information for consumers who may struggle with their digestion, and to provide solid evidence of the benefits of sheep milk to support New Zealand exports."
New Zealand now has more than 20,000 sheep for milking at 16 different producers, and significant new investment is going into milk processing and supply to overseas markets.
Sheep milk products from New Zealand are being exported to growth markets such as China, Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Blue River Dairy marketing and supply chain manager Gareth Lyness says: "There is already a latent awareness of the benefits of sheep milk. Asian consumers express these benefits in terms of how much 'heat' the milk brings to our bodies; sheep milk is understood to 'create less inner heat' than other milks, meaning it is gentler on the digestive system."
For more details on the clinical trial, visit auckland.ac.nz/en/liggins/in-the-community/clinical-studies/clinical-studies-adults/shindig-study.html