CHICAGO — From butter coffee to whey water, a growing number of value-added beverages rely on dairy ingredients for nutrition and flavor. Some dairy ingredients add richness in the form of creamy and even frothy textures, while others dissolve into clear solutions. Most dairy ingredients are embraced for their protein quality; however, those with fat content often have notoriety for their essential fatty acids. And, while plant-based formulations have been making inroads in the sports nutrition sector, dairy’s presence is strong and growing due to specialty ingredients that excel in delivering pre- and post-workout fuel.

Protein is the reason most beverage innovators include dairy ingredients. Ingredient selection usually is based on protein concentration, solubility and amino acid profile, with the latter, branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), the hot topic of the fitness world. The BCAAs are three of the essential amino acids — leucine, isoleucine and valine — and are responsible for metabolic and physiologic functions in the body. The BCAAs are best known for promoting muscle growth and decreasing muscle soreness during strenuous exercise. Research shows BCAAs help metabolize glucose, thus increasing energy and shortening recovery times after exertion, as well as support immune and brain function.

“Dairy protein beverages are an exciting area for the dairy industry,” said Kimberlee Burrington, dairy ingredient applications coordinator, Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. “Innovative new products are hitting the shelves, and consumers are beginning to appreciate the nutritional value of beverages made with dairy proteins. However, when developing these beverages, it is important to have a good understanding of the functionality of different dairy ingredients.”

Ascent Protein, Denver, markets a range of pre- and post-workout beverages all containing dairy protein ingredients. The pre-workout drink mix includes 150 mg of caffeine from concentrated coffee fruit extract for quick energy. Its newest product is ready-to-drink Ascent Recovery Water, which contains 20 grams of fast-digesting native whey protein and 2.5 grams of leucine to trigger muscle protein synthesis. Ascent Recovery Water contains 100 calories, no artificial ingredients and electrolytes for hydration.

Until the turn of the century, the power of whey proteins was appreciated mostly by body builders. Whey, which is the byproduct of cheese manufacturing, typically had been sold as animal feed.

As scientists began exploring the various fractions of whey and their functions in the body, food and beverage formulators began using it for fortification of meal replacement and weight-loss products, as protein satiates and helps build lean muscle. The sports nutrition market also took off. Today, cheese is sometimes made for the whey stream.

Dairy ingredient innovation

Numerous ingredients are made from that stream. Whey protein concentrate is the most basic. It is any type of concentrated whey powder containing less than 90% whey protein. Whey protein isolate refers to concentrated whey powder containing 90% or more whey protein. The rest of both ingredients is fat, lactose and minerals.

Suppliers employ technologies that modify the whey proteins into functional ingredients to allow for high dosing levels without grittiness. Some specialty whey proteins have been processed to be clear in solution. Others allow for faster absorption by the body. While neutral in flavor and color, efficacious levels tend to be bitter. Suppliers have been able to solve that problem, too.

“The focus is on improved digestibility and absorption of protein for many of these beverages, while eliminating heavy mouthfeel of the beverages,” said Anand Rao, vice president of ingredients innovation, Agropur Ingredients, La Crosse, Wis. “Hydrolyzed whey proteins with minimal bitterness are designed for beverages for post-exercise fast absorption.”

Hydrolyzed whey is considered a premium version of whey protein isolate. It is a 90% to 95% whey protein ingredient that has been processed in a way that renders it easier for the body to absorb. The process improves its bioavailability, increasing muscle protein synthesis after exercising, which is why it is often used in post-exercise/recovery beverages.

“Whey proteins are considered the best protein source for supporting lean-muscle building goals and accelerating recovery after an intense workout because of the absorbability, high-level of BCAAs and other essential amino acids,” said Annie Seal, vice president of marketing and innovation, Dymatize Enterprises, LLC, Dallas, a sports nutrition food and beverage company. “Hydrolyzed whey protein isolate is a superpremium form of whey protein isolate. It is lower in fat, sugar and carbohydrates, and has the added benefit of causing less stomach upset than many whey proteins.

“Dymatize formulates protein powders based on function and consumer need. For example, ISO100 is made with a combination of hydrolyzed whey protein isolate and whey protein isolate, while Elite Casein is made from caseinate protein.”

Casein, sometimes called caseinate, is another milk protein. Casein is the protein that makes cheese, unlike the whey that is the byproduct. Thus, casein ingredients are obtained directly from milk.

Caseins are recognized as being slowly digested proteins, which is why they often are included in meal replacement and weight-loss beverages, as they have the ability to satiate for a longer period of time.

Dymatize Elite Casein uses cross-flow microfiltration processing to preserve the natural state of casein’s muscle-building properties. The slow release helps avoid muscle protein breakdown in between meals or during sleep.

“One of the newer milk protein ingredients is micellar casein,” Ms. Burrington said. “This ingredient is typically 90% to 95% casein. It’s basically a concentrated source of casein obtained through microfiltration of milk.”

Ready-to-drink SToK Protein Cold Brew Coffee from Danone North America, White Plains, NY, is made with skim milk and micellar casein. A 12-oz serving has 16 grams of protein.

Formulators who want to include both whey and casein proteins in their beverages often will use milk protein concentrate ingredients, which are concentrated milk powders containing 40% to 90% milk protein. They contain casein, whey proteins and bioactive proteins in the same ratio found in milk. As the protein content increases, the lactose (milk sugar) levels decrease. A high-protein, low-lactose ratio makes it ideal for protein-fortified beverages. A more concentrated option is milk protein isolate, which contains 90% or more protein by weight. It contains little fat (typically less than 3%), carbohydrates or lactose and has a high amino acid composition making it ideal for meal replacement beverages.

SlimFast, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, now offers SlimFast Keto RTD meal replacement shakes. Formulated on the principles of ketogenic nutrition — high fat, low carbohydrate and moderate protein — the beverages contain milk protein concentrate, delivering 8 grams of protein per 11-oz bottle.

Kaffi Icelandic Protein Coffee is a new range of refrigerated coffee milks from Smari Inc., Petaluma, Calif. Milk protein concentrate boosts protein content to 10 grams per 8-oz bottle.

Quest Nutrition, El Segundo, Calif., is also now in the RTD dairy beverage space with protein shakes made with milk protein concentrate. One 11-oz shelf-stable carton packs in 30 grams of dairy proteins.

Formulators have reasons for selecting a specific dairy protein ingredient. Price always is a consideration, but so is functionality in the application. How the beverage is heat processed and whether it is perishable or shelf stable impacts performance.

“Isolates and concentrates have their pros and cons,” Ms. Burrington said. “A concentrate is going to cost less but it will also have more lactose and minerals, which will contribute to the overall sugar content. Concentrates will also have some fat, which is going to produce a more cloudy, milky product. In addition, the mineral content of concentrates can create some instability depending on the pH of the beverage. So, even though isolates cost more, some manufacturers opt for isolates because, among other factors, they can produce a beverage with a lower sugar content and the best clarity, which is important for protein waters. There is also a new whey ingredient called milk-derived whey. This ingredient is different than cheese-derived whey, as the ingredient has never gone through a cheesemaking process. The flavor of milk-derived whey is going to be very clean.”

Regardless of the ingredient, Ms. Burrington emphasized the importance of properly hydrating dry dairy proteins.

“Some of the solubility and heat stability issues that are seen with dairy protein beverages can be avoided by properly hydrating the dairy proteins before they are added to the beverage formulation,” she said.