The Strong Bone Project is a Collaboration of Global Proportions

Isabel MacNeill Bio Photo

Isabel MacNeill

Studying the impact of dairy foods on health isn’t just a gimmick to strengthen the U.S. dairy market. Dairy scientists, like Ms. Isabel MacNeill, strive to understand how to help people live healthier lives, and that work has global impacts. Ms. MacNeill is collaborating with the California Dairy Research Foundation (CDRF) and other organizations to document solid science-based evidence on the importance of dairy foods in healthy diets. What’s particularly special about the arrangement is that Ms. MacNeill works the Australian counterpart of CDRF, the Dairy Australia, Ltd. Both CDRF and Dairy Australia understand importance of understanding the role of dairy products in healthy diets.

The story of this study starts over six years ago, with a trial on the impact of calcium supplementation on reducing falls and fracture rates. “What was missing from it was impact of whole dairy products on bone health,” Ms. MacNeill explained. Since that study, others have illustrated a connection between calcium supplements and bone health, but large controlled studies on whole dairy foods have not been conducted. “The only way to do that kind of a study is to do it well,” said Ms. MacNeill.

Through a collaboration with Dairy Australia, CDRF has supported the development of a unique study on dairy health benefits. Human studies, especially well-designed ones, require a vast amount of resources, from funding to scientific expertise to large numbers of subjects. With a target of following 3,000 subjects over two years, this study is no exception. Luckily, as Ms. MacNeill points out, the dairy industry is very collaborative all around the world. Such collaboration reflects the integrated nature of their subject as well. “You can’t just isolate one piece of the health puzzle,” said Ms. MacNeill. “You have to look holistically at diet and multiple measures of wellbeing.” It’s also important to consider the big picture of the dairy industry and its place in the world.

While Dairy Australia normally is involved in modest amounts of human health research, it was clear that there was a need for this unique and landmark project. The expertise provided by CDRF and its partners was key to the design and implementation of this study. “California and our other partners have had the foresight to see how valuable this trial will be,” said Ms. MacNeill.

Dr. Pasin, the executive director CDRF, said that “through CDRF’s nutrition and health program, we demonstrate and promote the nutritional and health benefits of milk and dairy products. Globally there has been no definitive trial that has demonstrated that increased dairy consumption reduces the risk of fractures or other ailments in the elderly.” She added, “Health message benefits of milk and dairy foods requires credible scientific evidence. Milk and dairy products providing stronger bone health to the elderly and other health benefits project was a natural fit for CDRF to partner with.”

The Study Design

The study takes advantage of a unique setup: elderly residences in Australia provide fully catered meal services, allowing researchers to carefully track and intervene with the volunteers’ diets. Researchers already know that Australians and Americans don’t eat enough dairy products, according to either government’s dietary recommendations. In the elderly, such a deficiency can contribute to muscle weakness and frail bones, which in turn lead to increased falls and a host of poor medical outcomes—including increased death rates. These falls are costly both in terms of quality of life and health care costs.

CDRF, Dairy Australia and the other collaborators think that by increasing dairy intake in the elderly, the risks of such falls could be reduced. Over two full years, the study will follow 3,000 participants, with 1,500 receiving two additional servings of milk, cheese or yogurt. These supplements will in part replace nutrient-light foods like cookies, improving overall diet as well as increasing dairy consumption. In addition to tracking fall rates, the study will also look at cholesterol and blood pressure in participants. This type of study, called a randomized controlled trial, is a gold standard in the science community for providing evidence about the effectiveness of an intervention.

“If we can prove that just by including two extra servings of dairy products, people’s overall health improves, that information will benefit a much wider population that just those who were studied.” Ms. MacNeill said. “It really can be extrapolated to whole population. This research can really send a powerful message about dairy and the health of not just bones but sarcopenia prevention and cardiovascular health.”

Dr. Pasin explained that given the general similarities between Australia and the U.S. populations, it is expected that outcomes should be directly applicable to the California and U.S. situation.

CDRF Leverages its Checkoff Dollars through Partnerships

Ms. MacNeill expressed her deep gratitude to CDRF and the other collaborators. “The level of commitment and expertise was just fantastic,” she said. Dr. Gonca Pasin, echoed Ms. MacNeill’s sentiments. “We partner and collaborate not only to leverage our checkoff dollars, but also to bring the expertise from all over the world,” she said. “We’re not just looking to support small pieces of a project, but the collaborative and fundamental kind of work that you can’t do with only your own resources. These types of landmark studies not only help derive the demand for milk and dairy products around the world, but also can help improve the wellbeing of people everywhere.”

Dr. Pasin said that CDRF will continue to look for partnerships to leverage our research dollars and expertise to derive demand for milk and dairy products.