Dairy ingredient innovation

by David Phillips
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Dairy proteins provide a variety of functional and nutritional benefits for food and beverage processors, and they are constantly evolving as researchers learn more about their building blocks. Ingredients such as milk protein isolates and bioactive whey fractions — ingredients that had not been commercialized just a few decades ago — now have practical applications in products including soups, sauces and sports beverages.

While the innovations in dairy proteins are significant, they may only scratch the surface. Allen Foegeding, PhD, a researcher at North Carolina State University, uses a different industry to describe the potential for dairy ingredients.

“You can look at the protein field the same way you look at the car industry,” said Dr. Foegeding, who studies the molecular composition of dairy proteins. “We have compact cars and we have full-sized cars, and we have had those for decades. But the auto industry is always going to try to improve the gas mileage for both and it’s going to try to make them safer.”

Researchers and dairy ingredient marketers are continually seeking higher levels of specific nutritional benefits from dairy proteins, and to enhance their functional properties (such as foaming) as a way of encouraging food formulators to choose dairy protein over other options.

“As a general trend, individuals are looking to increase protein in their diets,” said Loren Ward, PhD, director of R&D at Glanbia Nutritionals, Twin Falls, Idaho. “Just over 50% of consumers are trying to increase the amount of protein in their diet. Increasing protein and replacing things like starches and gums also provides a clean label. That’s coming across as a double-positive for food formulators.”

Jeff Banes, applied technology manager at Grande Custom Ingredients, Lomira, Wis., said dairy proteins have some inherent strength as fat mimics and clean-label texturants.

“They offer different benefits from other texturants and can be used in conjunction with other texturants,” Mr. Banes said. “Among those, you can create creamier, more fat-like textures in a lower-fat formulation.”

When dairy proteins are used to replace fresh milk, cream or butter in formulas they offer some very practical benefits to the manufacturer in that they are typically in a powdered, shelfstable form. That makes it easier to control inventory and for ease of use on the processing floor. These features may offer long-range cost savings. Dairy proteins may also help make products less sensitive to freeze-thaw cycles.

Grande offers a line of whey proteins under the Bravo brand, and the company recently introduced Grande Grade A Yogurt Powder, a powdered yogurt coating that has applications in several food and beverage categories. For example, the ingredient may be used in dips and dressings to add texture, creaminess and yogurt flavor in cold- or heat-processed systems.

Whey proteins may also be used as part of stabilizer systems and work together with hydrocolloids to stabilize yogurt for texture, stability and reducing syneresis. Whey proteins also have the functionality to emulsify fat and may work jointly with chemical emulsifiers to provide emulsion stability in such products as salad dressings, ice cream and other high-fat foods.

The “dairy refinery”

In early March, Dr. Foegeding gave a presentation on colloidal properties and food structure designs at the 14th Dairy Ingredients Symposium, held in San Francisco and organized by the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo’s Dairy Products Technology Center.

Philip Tong, PhD, organizes the two-day conference each year, giving him a front-row seat to dairy ingredient innovation. Many in the industry talk about current and future technologies as a “dairy refinery,” operating in a similar way to a petroleum refinery, he said.

“Crude oil has low value, but it can be refined into many higher-value products that can be used for energy or to make new materials,” Dr. Tong said. “We think we can do the same thing for food and nutrition by starting with milk.”

Dairy ingredients have already been improved upon compared with the not-so-distant past, when the term applied to little more than butter fat, dried milk and cheese powders.

Numerous scientific studies have established the foundation of whey as an important food and beverage ingredient. Its biological components — including lactoferrin, beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, glycomacropeptide, and immunoglobulins — demonstrate a range of immune-enhancing properties. In addition, whey has the ability to act as an antioxidant and chelating agent.

Dr. Tong pointed to oligosaccharides in milk as an example of what may be on the horizon in dairy ingredients.

“They have been associated with the establishment of overall gut health,” he said. “Oligosaccharides have been shown to provide food for the probiotic bacteria growth, particularly for the infant. There is a lot of interest from infant formula manufacturers to use oligosaccharides to create compounds that establish a healthy gut microflora. And it may be able to go beyond that and extend it to products for all stages of life.”

A matter of taste

The nutrient density of dairy ingredients are a positive characteristic, but if the ingredients don’t enhance flavor and texture — or worse, detract from it — that’s a non-starter for product developers.

North Carolina State’s Dr. Foegeding said he understands the challenges product developers face in converting a $50 restaurant meal into a frozen entrée that is reasonably priced and performs well in the dining room at home. He believes the challenges may be met through some puzzle-solving and a bit of compromise.

A good example of puzzle solving is in a protein-enhanced beverage, where the dairy proteins may have heat sensitivity.

“We are seeing expanded opportunities for beverages that are clear and deliver a desired level of protein,” Dr. Foegeding said. “You can decrease pH to 3.5 and form clear beverages that are stable, but then the beverages become somewhat astringent. You are always looking for something you can do to make it better. Sure, we would like to lower astringency and to be able to get more proteins in the product.”

The same may be said for combining proteins with bioactives and additional minerals, he said.

“We are really looking toward designer proteins that fit into the overall approach of developing beverages with targeted nutritional function. With that in mind, we want the flexibility of putting in a range of nutrients and bioactive compounds in such a way we can keep them from destabilizing the system.”

Glanbia’s Dr. Ward pointed to earlier success in overcoming obstacles with high-protein nutrition bars.

“There are always technical challenges,” he said. “Proteins have a specific functionality. Nutrition bars, when they were first developed, were extremely hard, and the industry had to develop a range of ingredients that would allow for a high-protein bar that was soft and able to greater appeal in the marketplace.”

Cal Poly’s Dr. Tong noted that the use of whey proteins has improved the flavor-texture threshold for low-fat cheese. Until recently, a 30% reduction in fat was about the best that could be achieved for cheese that would maintain acceptable flavor and texture characteristics. Thanks in part to the use of specific whey products, 50% reductions or better are now being reached for cheeses used as ingredients.

Whey is now also being used to improve the texture of ice cream. Dr. Tong offers a scenario for using dairy protein to mimic and enhance other foods.

“Manipulating minerals can change the temperature at which a protein will gel when heated,” he said. “Knowing that, there are certain things that you can do in terms of cooking. It is possible that you could make something like a scrambled egg dish, but it’s made only from whey proteins. We can have structures there that resemble meat. We can put them into entrees and make them so they don’t flow and melt.”

In recent years, the interest in higher protein foods in general, and whey protein in particular, has gone beyond the serious athlete to include consumers working to stay fit, or paying attention to the nutritional composition of snacks and meals. This has affected the types of applications that use dairy ingredients, and the amounts that are being used, Dr. Ward said.

“We are seeing the emergence of nutritional bars that are aimed more to the mainstream, and they have maybe five to 10 or 15 grams of protein, where the athletes would want 30 grams,” he said.

Of course dairy is not the only protein source on the market. Milk and whey compete with proteins such as eggs and soy. And sometimes dairy competes with carbohydrates to provide functional properties like binding and emulsification while also adding protein.
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