Alastair MacGibbon Spotlights Opportunity for Milk Lipids

Check out some of his reflections and future forward insights on Milk Phospholipids.

01 Sep 2021

4 min

#Global #Mental Wellbeing #Active Lifestyle #Innovation

New Industry Opportunity with Milk Phospholipids

Milk lipids haven’t always been perceived as the cognitive powerhouses1 we know them to be now.

Vital to infant formula to meet the gap between formula and breast milk2, Milk Phospholipids are now on the cusp of being recognized as vital to other stages of life as well – for stress management and mental wellbeing3

This humble ingredient has been looked at with fresh perspective, and one scientist on team Fonterra has been an integral part of that perspective shift.

Leaning into his years of experience, we have connected with Alastair MacGibbon, Principal Research Scientist at Fonterra, to learn from his time spent elevating NZMP with his work in Milk lipids Globule Membranes/Milk Phospholipids.

Q.  What is your work history with Fonterra, and where did your interest with Milk Phospholipids first start?

I started work at what was then New Zealand Dairy Research Institute, in the Milkfat and Butter Section. There I was working on how to make butter more spreadable.

I was lucky to be working with a very talented team that ultimately commercialized spreadable butter. This is where I became intrigued with the relationship between the composition of lipids and how that influenced the properties of the products that were made from them. 

With the move to Food Chemistry section and then Health & Bioactives section, the focus had expanded into Health & Nutrition. 

At that time there was a very negative attitude to milkfat and health, and I was keen to show that positive side.

Alastair MacGibbon, Principal Research Scientist, Specialty & Paediatric Ingredients | Fonterra

At that time there was a very negative attitude to milkfat and health, and I was keen to show that positive side. 

This work on health related components in milk also involved nutritionists, physiologists and external medical experts, in my case working on lipid components. 

It was at this point that the industry commercialised a stream that was rich in milk phospholipids and gangliosides. Colleagues had found a cognitive effect on infants and this was exciting. We were able to test the bioactivity in a range of applications.  

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Q.   How has your work has helped shift the perspective and uncover the true value of Milkfats/Milk Phospholipids? 

The infant formula was interesting. Formulators typically used dairy protein paired with vegetable fats in infant formula.

In missing the milkfat, they also missed the membrane which covers that fat globule in milk, and it is here that one will find the milk phospholipids and gangliosides.

Colleagues measured the content of phospholipids and gangliosides in breast milk and we were able to determine the “gap” between breast milk and current infant formula. 

Fonterra has launched infant formula to fill the gap, and shown the cognitive benefits in a large clinical trial. 

Infant formula is the sole food of the infant and so it is easier to study, but milk phospholipids and gangliosides also impact other stages of life. These stages are being studied as part of cognitive performance and stress management. So the world is opening up.

Phospholipids and gangliosides make up over 20% of the dry weight of the brain, it makes sense that these components are important in all stages of life.

Alastair MacGibbon, Principal Research Scientist, Specialty & Paediatric Ingredients | Fonterra

Phospholipids and gangliosides make up over 20% of the dry weight of the brain, it makes sense that these components are important in all stages of life. 

Not only that, but we have found these compounds are also important in protection and immunity. These have led to studies on different life stages and the effect on stress management and cognitive performance.

This whole new area is exciting and we hope will lead to a better understanding of the importance of these milk phospholipids in the new demographic, as part of an active lifestyle in the stages of adult life.

In this regard we are proud that we could turn a dairy stream often overlooked into a very valuable, much sought-after product.

Q.   What has made Fonterra a team you’re proud to be a part of?

While Fonterra is ever evolving, it is the innovative and energetic people that have been the success of the business and in my time wonderful people have produced a wonderful wealth of knowledge and expertise has been accumulated and exploited.

There is not much more to milk products now that the original cheese, butter and milk powder.

Additionally, Fonterra is important to New Zealand, and so I feel that I am now only working for the farmers of Fonterra, but also working for New Zealand.

Learning from a rich career elevating dairy

Reflecting on Alastair’s respectable achievements, its undeniable that a key source of NZMP’s innovation and success come from the bright minds within.

Our people drive creativity and collaboration, inspire change, and seek to elevate our products and better support our customers with every initiative.

There is no doubt Alastair will continue to be one such mind, dedicated to bettering NZMP with his thoughtful perspective and nurturing the other creative minds within our team to do the same, to the benefit of NZMP and our industry as a whole.

Watch: Milk Phospholipids and the role food plays in stress

Learn from Rachel Marshall as she speaks on Milk Phospholipids with Nutritional Outlook



  • [1] Effects of milk-based phospholipids on cognitive performance and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Boyle et al, 2019.
  • [2] Supplementation of Infant Formula with Bovine Milk Fat Globule Membranes. Timby et al, 2017.
  • [3] Effects of milk phospholipid on memory and psychological stress response. Hellhammer et al, 2010.

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