CHICAGO — “All proteins are not created equal” was a phrase repeated many times during the joint annual conference of the American Dairy Products Institute, Elmhurst, Ill., and the American Butter Institute, Washington, which took place virtually Aug. 16-20. When referencing the phrase, the consensus was the superiority of dairy proteins needs to be better communicated to consumers, and the industry is ready to help product developers fuel their products with the power of dairy proteins.

“While we know there are definitely headwinds with plant and lab-grown proteins, we all have a responsibility to get behind telling the powerful story of dairy proteins,” said Daragh Maccabee, chief executive officer, Idaho Milk Products, Jerome, Idaho, during a session on value-added proteins.

Idaho Milk Products is a 12-year-old company owned by two farmer families that together have 14 locations and 19 barns all within a 45-mile radius of the ingredient manufacturing plant. The company converts about 4.5 million lbs of milk per day.

“We have scale of production with freshness at the same time,” Mr. Maccabee said. “Our closed cold-loop process is the fundamental pillar of our product quality and functionality.”

The process is used to produce the company’s two primary ingredients: milk protein concentrate (MPC) and milk protein isolate (MPI). By eliminating heat treatment, the 80% to 90% protein ingredients have improved solubility and are better tasting than heat-treated products, said Mr. Maccabee. The ingredients contain the same 80% casein and 20% whey protein ratios as found in milk, just in a concentrated dried format.

Mr. Maccabee cited trending examples of higher-protein dairy foods, including yogurt and ice cream, as well as snack chips, muffins and even pasta.

“Alcohol-infused ice cream has gained traction since the pandemic,” Mr. Maccabee said. “It’s a challenging application that we think we have mastered.”

Nightfood Inc., Tarrytown, NY, uses MPC in its namesake sleep-friendly ice creams. This doubles the concentration of the amino acid tryptophan, which aids in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that many researchers believe is linked to suppressing anxiety and depression, as well as helping with sleep.

Niamh Kelly, senior vice president of dairy protein strategy, Glanbia Nutritionals, Twin Falls, Idaho, said, “Customers take a number of things into account when deciding which protein to use and buy.”

In-process stability, ease-of-use and taste are desirable attributes of dairy proteins. The most common applications being sports nutrition and high-protein bars, powdered beverages, ready-to-drink beverages and other protein-fortified foods, ranging from chips to cookies and pizza crust to nut butter spreads.

“We believe in the superiority of dairy proteins,” Ms. Kelly said. “We continuously innovate our dairy portfolio to ensure consistency, functionality and flavor.”

Sleep-friendly ice cream from NightFoodTo meet the growing demands of functional dairy proteins, Glanbia Nutritionals invested $470 million into a new cheese and whey plant in St. Johns, Mich., which was built during the pandemic and began receiving milk in October. The facility will process 2.9 billion lbs of milk annually, which will be turned into 300 million lbs of cheese and 20 million lbs of whey protein.

The company is focused on traditional proteins, such as whey protein concentrate (WPC) with a 34% to 80% protein content and whey protein isolate (WPI), which has more than 85% plus protein content. Specialty ingredients include protein hydrolysates, which supply 80% to 95% protein.

“Additional processing breaks the bonds between amino acids,” Ms. Kelly said. “Hydrolysates are absorbed more quickly by the body and muscles.”

Innovation is focused on protein fractions and bioactives. They are produced using technologies to isolate specific dairy protein components. The ingredients vary in protein content and provide science-based functionality to the consumer.

“Traditionally we have focused on startups, and we help them grow to be major brands,” Ms. Kelly said. “We have a collaborative innovation model. We don’t think of ourselves as an ingredient supplier, rather as a partner to develop end products for our customers.

“We are driven by insights. We have primary research teams that go out and talk to consumers, to find out their mindset, what the trends are. This information drives innovation.”

Such innovation is taking place in the keto-friendly space, which features foods and beverages high in fat, low in carbohydrates and moderate in protein. SlimFast, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, for example, continues to grow its SlimFast Keto line. Meal replacement bars include a blend of WPI and MPI along with protein crisps made from WPI.

Arand Rao, vice president of ingredients innovation, Agropur Inc., Appleton, Wis., explained how the term whey protein is a collective term for numerous individual proteins. The most prevalent is beta-lactoglobulin, which makes up 55% to 60% of the protein in WPC and WPI. Next is alpha-lactalbumin, which is present at 35% to 40%. Others are lactoferrin, glycomacropeptide (GMP) and immunoglobulins.

“Agropur manufactures WPC and WPI,” Mr. Rao said. “In addition, we believe pulling out one or two of these component proteins makes them shine. That is why we fractionate individual proteins to 80% to 90% purity.”

Currently alpha-lactalbumin and GMP are available in purified and concentrated forms. This allows for their functional and biological properties to be amplified in foods and beverages. For example, the company offers a whey protein ingredient that is 95% GMP.

“GMP extends our protein’s reach to supplement applications,” Mr. Rao said. “GMP is an ideal dietary tool for people with phenylketonuria, a birth defect that inhibits the body from digesting the amino acid phenylalanine.”

Other bioactive properties of GMP include functioning as an anti-inflammatory and as a prebiotic. The ingredient is manufactured using ion-exchange technology and membrane processing. The fractionation process also is used to produce alpha-lactalbumin ingredients for application in nutritional products.

Alpha-lactalbumin is present at a level of 0.02% to 0.03% in bovine milk, making isolation and purification a precise science. Its presence in human milk is much higher, about eight times more; thus, isolation and purification of alpha-lactalbumin enables the development of infant formula that more closely resembles human milk. It is also rich in tryptophan and may be used in the growing segment of mood foods.

Lactoferrin is another isolate added to infant formula to increase the level to be closer to human milk. It is a natural iron-binding milk glycoprotein, said Uwe Schnell, CEO of FrieslandCampina Ingredients, Delhi, NY, that has applications beyond infant foods. He explained how research shows lactoferrin may support the immune system and reduce the risk of infections. The benefits open the door for a range of on-trend immunity-boosting foods and beverages.