Fatty Acids in Dairy Cut Diabetes Risk?

Parents often insist that their children drink milk, but why? Kids who don't drink cow's milk are just as healthy as those who do, studies show. In fact, research suggests that milk-free kids may be less likely to develop colic, ear infections, and asthma.The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't recommend cow's milk for children younger than one.What about getting enough calcium? No problem--there's plenty of the bone-building nutrient in green leafy vegetables, beans, fortified juices, soymilk and many other foods. One notable exception is spinach. The calcium it contains is poorly absorbed by the body.
woman milk mustache
A compound in dairy fat has been linked to lower diabetes risk (iStockphoto)

(CBS) Watching your diet? If so, whole milk, butter, and cheese probably aren't regulars on your shopping list.

Should they be?

Scientists at Harvard School of Public Health have identified a fatty acid in whole dairy foods that is linked to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. The compound, trans-palmitoleic acid, is a chemical cousin of cis-palmitoleic acid, a diabetes-blocking acid produced naturally in the liver.

In the study of data from 3,736 men and women, those with the highest levels of trans-palmitoleic acid in the blood were found to have a significantly lower risk of developing diabetes, as measured by blood glucose levels and other risk factors.

Lead researcher Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, associate professor of epidemiology at the school, wonders if trans-palmitoleic acid may make up for the work that used to be performed by the cis-palmitoleic acid.

The study was published in the Dec. 21, 2010 edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

"Our working hypothesis, based on several observations," Mozaffarian tells CBS News, "is that with modern diets being so high in carbohydrates and calories, the body's synthesis of cis-palmitoleic acid might be limited."

In other words, we might be eating so much that we are keeping cis-palmitoleic acid from doing its job.

"Trans-palmitoleic acid may be stepping in as a 'pinch hitter' for at least some of the functions of cis-palmitoleic acid," says Mozaffarian.

"I don't think there's enough evidence to show that we should start drinking whole milk," Dr. Joel Zonszein, director of the Clinical Diabetes Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, told Health Day. "We need to understand the mechanism behind this association. Dietary changes in this country tend to be to extremes, but this study should not be used to make changes in the diet; it's just an observation right now."

Mozaffarian says he hopes his work will encourage more research, and that one day trans-palmitoleic acid could be used as a supplement.

So don't buy out the dairy section just yet.