Milk sales are up - and although some people have put it down to increased consumption of porridge, tea and coffee, the milk industry is keen to capitalise on its newfound popularity. One way it is doing this is to launch products fortified with omega-3 and melatonin, as Hugh Westbrook reports.

Milk's image is on the rise. While recent years have seen a spate of dairy-bashing, with milk producers required to defend their product on a basic level from those who see it as the root of all ills, the tide seems to have turned in milk's favour. But even though this battle has not yet been conclusively won, milk producers have now been able to move on to the white stuff's more specific benefits.

They have been helped by a rise in milk drinking. Milk consumption in the UK has increased for the first time in 30 years. While research by the Milk Development Council suggested that the jump was not entirely due to milk itself - porridge and large, milky coffees are very much in vogue - milk producers have been happy to seize on the figures to emphasise milk's worth.

Working from the basis that milk is basically very healthy, companies have been looking to enhance milk to give it even more health functionality. Two areas which have been ripe for development have been omega 3 and milk to help you sleep.

There have been reports recently that organic milk is healthier than non-organic. One of the claims in the research is that it contains much higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids, said to help with the heart, circulation and concentration.

This is certainly true of some of the organic milk on the market. The UK's Organic Milk Suppliers Co-Operative promotes this claim heavily on its website, and its 'Altogether Better' milk does indeed have more omega 3 than other non-organic milk.

Supermilk

But it also has more omega 3 than some organic milk, as the presence of the fatty acid is not to do with milk - it is to do with the diet of the cows producing the milk, in the case of 'Altogether Better' the natural red clover which they feed on.

A spokeswoman confirmed that all milk with which Omsco is involved has high levels of omega three, but could not confirm the same was true of all organic milk.

A dietician with the British Nutrition Foundation told just-food.com that people need to be careful with this kind of fact. She said: "There are not many studies, there is too much error and you need to be careful over the way that nutritional content is measured - all these studies of the nutritional make-up of organic food are related a bit to what is eaten. You need to be very careful of these blanket statements."

While organic milk is still definitely for some, alternatives have emerged for those looking for milk high in omega 3. Marks and Spencer has produced Supermilk, with omega 3 added in, while Dairy Crest has recently launched St Ivel Advance, a conventional milk enhanced with omega 3.

The company has been working on developing the product for two years and said that it is more a coincidence than anything else that it has come on the market shortly after the omega 3 claims of the organic producers.

A concentration aid

It was also not working from the view that there is an inherent link between milk and omega 3, rather the company was looking for a way to develop milk products to grow their business. A spokesperson said that in particular, the company had responded to the Durham Trials, which demonstrated a link between increased concentration in children and an increase in consumption of fish oils, where omega 3 is naturally found.

Using children as a target market, the company therefore spent two years developing Advance, and promote it with the claim that it will aid concentration. As milk is eaten readily by children on cereal, persuading them to drink their milk is not hard.

A spokesperson told just-food.com: "The problem of enriching is that people are worried the product will taste of fish - there is a huge problem of getting fish oils into things without it impacting on the taste." The company feels it has now solved this problem.

The people behind Omsco believe this is not the right way to go, stressing that the omega 3 in organic milk is derived naturally, saying in a statement: "In comparison to M&S's new omega 3 enhanced 'Supermilk' brand, which is produced by feeding cattle oily fish remains, organic cows produce delicious organic milk which is naturally higher in Omega-3 alpha-linolenic fatty acids." Clearly the debate is set to continue.

No more counting sheep

Another area ripe for development has been milk to help with sleep. The age-old notion that a glass of milk at bedtime can help with a good night's sleep is more than just an old wives' tale. The presence of melatonin in milk can help with insomnia.

Just-food reported last year on how this kind of product had developed in Finland, with Ingman Dairy at the forefront. Also in Scandinavia, Denmark's Arla Food Ingredients has produced Goodnight Milk, which contains a milk protein, alpha-lactalbumin, which in turn can lead to the production of melatonin. The company claims that it is therefore more efficient than products which are purely based on containing high levels of melatonin.

Nevertheless, milk high in melatonin is developing its own niche. The UK's Night Time Milk, produced by St Helen's Farm in association with Cricketer Farm in Somerset, is currently available in some branches of Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose.

Marketing manager Mike Hind explained to just-food.com that people were keen to find a natural product to help with sleeping problems.

Further developments expected

He said that rather than melatonin being added to the milk, the company has simply tested existing milk to see which was highest in melatonin.

"We buy milk from 30 farms and we identified a number of farms with rich melatonin milk," he said. "It is to do with things like diet, the age of cows and so on. We then isolate milk produced during hours of darkness to get the richest melatonin."

He said that the product does not make a claim it cannot substantiate and added that it does not bring better sleep in every case, currently around six out of ten who try it.

He added: "The UK has been underdeveloped in terms of milk development and places like Australia and New Zealand have all sorts of enhanced milk. The last year has seen the UK far more active because a lot of people have realised that adding a bit of value can help sales."

With milk once again re-establishing itself as a healthy food, the time is ripe for food companies to see what functionality they can add in to enhance their products' health benefits. We can expect more developments along these lines in the next few years.