Are you part of the estimated 65% of the adult population that has trouble digesting lactose? Well, thanks to Dr. Virginia Holsinger you can have your ice cream and eat it too!
Working as an analytical chemist at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Services, she led the team that developed an enzyme treatment that made milk more digestible by those with lactose intolerance. The division Holsinger headed was asked by a dairy farmer to work on a milk substitute and by using lactase from non-human sources like fungi, she was able to create a process that broke down the lactose before the milk was consumed making it digestible for those that lack lactase in their digestive systems. This research is the basis for Lactaid brand milk and a number of dietary supplements that sprung up in the mid-1980s. Her findings are also the basis for further developments into making lactose free yogurt and ice cream.
Because of this breakthrough, the U.S. Military asked for Holsinger’s help developing a modified version of dehydrated milk powder for members of the military that were lactose intolerant. This collaboration led to a dry blend milk powder that included a lactase enzyme that can break down the milk lactose inside the stomach. In addition she developed a dehydrated butter powder that can be used in place of shortening and reduced-fat mozzarella cheese that is widely used in the USDA’s National School Lunch Program.
But some would argue that her most important contribution was the development of a nutritious shelf-stable whey-soy drink mix that was used as a replacement for milk in international food donation programs as well as a grain blend that, when mixed with water, can create a porridge that can be used in emergency situation like droughts, famines, and other natural disasters.
Retiring in 1999, Holsinger has been honored many times for her work including the ARS Distinguished Scientist of the Year Award, the Distinguished Service Award of the Division of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, American Chemical Society, and in 2000 she was inducted into the ARS Hall of Fame.
Written by Angela Goad