Functional Dairy Foods
Dairy product formulators are developing new products with an eye toward improving health and wellness.

CHICAGO — Consumers are becoming more aware of how diet influences short- and long-term health and wellness. In response, many are seeking nutrient-dense foods to attain benefits beyond basic nutrition.

Inherently nutritious dairy foods are attractive delivery vehicles for dietary components that work behind the scenes to help prevent disease, as well as deliver a myriad of purported benefits ranging from anti-aging to inducing satiety. When such ingredients, which range from amino acids and fatty acids to antioxidants and plant extracts, are added to dairy foods, they get elevated to functional food status.

It has been driven home that calcium and vitamin D may prevent osteoporosis, while protein refuels muscle after exercise. Omega-3 fatty acids assist with brain development and memory, and oat beta glucan reduces the risk of heart disease.

Most recently, the European Union’s European Food Safety Authority confirmed a new claim that chicory root fiber contributes to better blood glucose management. Food and beverage products containing chicory root fiber instead of sugars induce a lower blood glucose rise after consumption, compared to sugar-containing products. Now that the claim has been approved, marketers may communicate general health-related claims on products made with chicory root fiber, such as “keeping your blood sugar low” or “more balanced blood glucose rise” within the E.U. A similar claim is under review by the Food and Drug Administration.

Scientists continue to isolate and manufacture many powerful dietary components into ingredients for use in functional foods. Such ingredients generally are considered those intended to be consumed as part of the normal diet and contain biologically active components that offer the potential of enhanced health or reduced risk of disease.

The F.D.A. regulates the claims that manufacturers may make about functional foods’ nutrient content and effects on disease, health or body function. There are three categories of claims that may be used in the United States: health claims, nutrient content claims and structure/function claims. (See related story on Page 43)

“Proponents of functional foods say they promote optimal health and help reduce the risk of disease,” said Katherine Zeratsky, senior medical editor with the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. “While functional foods may help promote wellness, they can’t make up for poor eating habits.”

This is why inherently nutritious foods, such as dairy, increasingly are getting a boost of extra nutrition.

Further, portion control and portability make many dairy foods attractive snacking options for today’s mini-meal consumer. Such convenience foods — namely cheese, yogurt, drinkable dairy and even ice cream — may be formulated to offer a nutritional profile that appeals to consumers, while the value-added products command a premium price, making them attractive to both manufacturers and retailers.

What dairy offers

The 2016 Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, Washington, shows Americans want to know more about their food and are changing their behaviors based on what they learn. This year, 47% said they look at the ingredients list when deciding what to purchase, up from 40% a year ago.

Interestingly, when American consumers define what makes a food healthy, it’s becoming more about what is not in a food rather than what is in it. The presence of artificial ingredients and preservatives is a leading deal breaker when it comes to purchase intent.

Still, Americans claim they are seeking more of several dietary components, most notably protein and fiber. Dairy may deliver both, and more, while also keeping a clean and simple label void of undesirable artificial ingredients.

According to the IFIC survey, 64% of Americans are seeking protein in the diet, while 60% are trying to consume more fiber. These are both statistically significant increases compared to 2015. So are the increases in omega-3 fatty acids (37% are trying to consume) and probiotics (33%). New to the survey for 2016 was vitamins, which 56% of respondents said they are trying to consume, as well as prebiotics (12%). Dairy foods may be designed to deliver all of these important dietary components.

Dairy foods are inherent sources of what most Americans want more of, which is protein. Every ounce of fluid milk contains 1 oz of protein. Depending on the product and processing, the inherent protein content of dairy foods may be concentrated. Further, adding additional protein to dairy products in the form of milk protein concentrate, nonfat dry milk or whey, for example, may further boost protein content.

After protein, fiber is likely the leading functional ingredient being added to dairy foods. The health benefits of consumption range from digestive health to weight management.

According to a survey of 1,250 males and 1,250 females between the ages of 18 and 64 in seven countries (France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom and United States) conducted by United Kingdom-based Datamonitor Consulting, and commissioned by Sensus, The Netherlands, the majority of consumers believe foods and beverages that contain fiber will help them stay healthy. The survey showed consumers increasingly care about their digestive health, which they perceive to be important for general health. With growing attention to digestive health, they increasingly are seeking prebiotic and probiotic food products, such as yogurt and other fermented foods, to help optimize digestion.

Functional innovation on display

Digestive health is a key attribute of new Früzinga drinkable yogurts from Dairy Innovations L.L.C., Miami Beach, Fla. Each 7-oz single-serve bottle contains 90 calories, 7 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber.

“Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help regulate your digestive system and may support your immune system,” said Mark Norton, vice president — brand strategy. “They encourage the growth of the friendly, natural, healthy bacteria that live in your gut so that they may help restore the balance of good and bad bacteria. To further fuel their growth, Früzinga is enhanced with prebiotic fiber.

“Whereas probiotics are living organisms, prebiotics are not. Prebiotics complement your gastrointestinal health by helping to bolster your intestinal micro flora.”

Pillars drinkable Greek yogurt is made with milk from grass-fed cows and contains live and active probiotic cultures and prebiotic fiber.

A recent innovation from Archway Food Group, New York, delivers many of the dietary components consumers are looking for. New Pillars drinkable Greek yogurt is made with milk from grass-fed cows and contains live and active probiotic cultures and prebiotic fiber.

“Pillars is a functional dairy beverage that fills a market gap between traditional cup Greek yogurt, smoothie products and other drinkable yogurts,” said Eric Bonin, president and product creator. “Simply, Pillars makes Greek yogurt more convenient, nutritious and delicious.”

A 12-oz single-serve bottle contains 100 calories, no fat, 18 grams of protein, 5 grams of sugar and 3 grams of fiber. There is no added sugar. The product is sweetened with stevia.

Hormel Health Labs, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods Corp., Austin, Minn., is growing its functional dairy foods offerings for the health care market. Designed specifically to support the unique nutritional needs of cancer patients, the products provide a balance of proteins, fats and carbohydrates.

Each 14-oz Hormel Vital Cuisine nutrition shake provides 25 grams of protein from an array of dairy ingredients, including caseinates, milk protein isolate and whey protein concentrate. The shakes were developed with assistance from chefs from the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y.

“During product development, we brought together researchers in both the health and culinary fields to ensure a thorough understanding of a patient’s needs during various phases of treatment,” said Chet Rao, strategy and business manager for the specialty foods group at Hormel Foods.

Executives with Thrive Ice Cream, Winter Park, Fla., believe ice cream may be a functional food, too. Thrive is a nutrition-packed premium ice cream containing probiotics, natural soluble fiber and high-quality milk proteins. It also is loaded with 24 vitamins and minerals.

Available in pints and portion-control 6-oz cups, Thrive may be consumed as a meal replacement, snack or dessert, with health care and sports nutrition two key channels for distribution. Varieties are butter pecan, chocolate, salted caramel and vanilla.

Foxy's Thoughtful Ice Cream gives an indulgent and local spin to functional ice cream.

Ventura, Calif.-based Foxy’s Thoughtful Ice Cream gives an indulgent and local spin to functional ice cream. There are 11 flavors in the line, many with whimsical names. For example, with “6 Mile Almond & Honey,” the milk goes directly from the milking sheds to the farmer’s own plant. The almonds are from the same farmer’s land. The honey is from the beehives of the bees that pollinated the groves that provided the almonds. All this happens within a 6-mile radius. With other flavors such as “Rocky Road Less Travelled,” there’s a story behind the source of the ingredients, everything from the marshmallows to the nuts.

“We make Foxy’s to order, meaning you have the freshest possible milk and ingredients,” said Angus Murray, chief executive officer and managing partner. “It’s a range of unique, premium 16% butterfat, 50% overrun ice creams loaded with more than one billion probiotics per serving and around 20% less sugar than comparable products.

“The products are also symbiotic. We use organic agave inulin to assist with the stabilization of the base mix, which is required when we reduce sugar. Inulin is a fiber that is not digested. Instead it makes its way to the areas of the digestive tract where the probiotics do most good and supports them by providing a growing medium.”

Cheese may be designed to be functional food as well. The Probiotic Cheese Co., North Hampton, N.H., recently introduced cheddar cheese bites with probiotics. The better-for-you snacking cheese is free of sugar/lactose and carbohydrates while also being high in protein.

Omega Valley Farmers L.L.C., Dorchester, Wis., is giving snacking cheese a different better-for-you spin by making the cheese from milk sourced from cows that graze on a specially formulated diet containing linseed and legumes. The diet boosts the omega-3 fatty acid content of the milk, with the omega-3s then getting concentrated in the 1-oz cheese sticks that come in Co-Jack and Monterey Jack varieties.

Whole food functionality

Another functional nutrition fact from the IFIC study was that consumers continue to seek more whole grains (59%), many of which contain protein, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients. Adding whole grains to dairy foods may not be as common as adding purified protein or fiber, but definitely presents an opportunity for innovation.

For example, General Mills Inc., Minneapolis, offers a range of yogurts with whole grains. Yoplait Plenti is a hearty take on Greek yogurt, combining protein-packed strained yogurt with oats, flax seeds and pumpkin seeds.

Adding whole grains to dairy foods may not be as common as adding purified protein or fiber, but it presents an opportunity for innovation.

Stonyfield Farm, Londonderry, N.H., offers Greek yogurt combined with fruit and chia. So does The Hain Celestial Group, Lake Success, N.Y., under its Greek Gods banner.

Whole grains, in particular ancient grains, as well as seeds, when combined with dairy foods, can help Americans improve their intake of essential nutrients, said Jane Dummer, a registered dietitian, industry consultant and author of recently published book “The Need for Seeds.”

“They help to achieve the Dietary Guidelines’ recommendation for consuming a mostly plant-based diet, while also meeting the two to three servings of dairy recommendation,” she said.

Adding such whole food ingredients complements consumer desire for cleaner label foods made with minimally processed ingredients, explained Randy Kreienbrink, vice-president of marketing, BI Nutraceuticals, Rancho Dominguez, Calif.

“Another clean label trend is choosing ingredients that are natural sources of energy, rather than simply adding caffeine,” Mr. Kreienbrink said.

That’s what you get with Live Real Farms Energy Drink from Dairy Farmers of America, Kansas City. Made with milk and fruit juice, the energy comes from the naturally occurring sugars in the juices, the skim milk and added fruit purees, as well as green tea extract and vitamin B12. Each 11-oz aseptically packaged shelf-stable carton contains 180 calories, 12 grams of protein, 1 gram of fiber, 28 grams of sugar and no fat. The protein boost comes from whey protein isolate.

Ms. Dummer believes the future for functional dairy foods is promising.

“There’s no pullback in consumer desire for healthier products,” she said. “Consumers want more convenient nutrient-dense snack options for their on-the-go lifestyle.”