Dairy products can be among the most basic, wholesome foods in the grocery store, but they can also get pretty complicated.
Fresh milk has a naturally high pH, but will acidify at room temperature. Milk contains fat and proteins, numerous minerals and a lot of water. The simplest of dairy products, such as fresh milk or sour cream, are just pasteurized milk, perhaps with some cultures or a bit of salt added. The most complex involve flavors, colors, texturants and even tiny confections. And, while milk is downright quaint, the dairy category has also produced one of the most dynamic food industry phenoms of this young century: Greek-style yogurt.
"Greek yogurt made the dairy industry interesting and exciting again to the consumer," says Mindy Mencl, product development manager at Smith Dairy, Orville, Ohio. "Dairy processors are looking at any and all ways to incorporate the added protein in any and all of their products, whether it be naturally through processing or through added whey or milk protein ingredients."
Smith Dairy makes a full line of dairy products under the Smith's and Ruggles brands and recently introduced a frozen Greek yogurt, Mencl says.
Getting healthful protein into foods is important because many consumers are limiting the amounts of meat and poultry they eat, while understanding the important role that protein plays in their diet. So dairy products that can deliver the many nutrients found in milk and also provide protein have much to moo about. And one of the best vehicles for increasing protein in a variety of foods is a product that is itself derived from milk — whey protein.
Dairy products such as ice cream and yogurt are finding more acceptance with consumers when they are made with quality natural ingredients, and protein derived from milk can provide more nutrient density in yogurt, frozen dairy treats, or even breakfast cereals and snack foods.
Additionally, many successful dairy products are organic, or at least marketed as natural foods. For these products, ingredient selection takes on added significance.
One way dairy products can stand or fall with the natural and better-for-you consumers is in the area of colors and flavors. Adding color with vegetable juice rather than certified colors has become the norm in dairy, just as it has in other product categories, says Doug Lynch, vice president of sales for LycoRed Ltd., Orange, N.J.
"Many dairy companies are trying to incorporate more natural colors versus synthetic certified colors, particularly companies which are selling to large schools," Lynch says. "For religious and ethical reasons, consumers have turned away from carmine/cochineal red colors, which, although considered natural, are made from ground up beetles, and are not kosher or halal."
Founded in 1995 as a entrepreneurial venture seeking markets for tomatoes, LycoRed offers a product line including patented functional ingredients such as Tomat-O-Red and Lyc-O-Mato, plus flavor enhancers, premixes for baby food formula (from its UK facility) and a full line of carotenoid natural colors.
Tomat-O-Red has been used in numerous applications in dairy. It can provide a fairly broad range of color and contributes a small amount of lycopene, which has been shown to perform as an antioxidant.
While food processors, including dairies, have embraced natural colors, they have also had to undergo a learning curve when it comes to how those products perform. One issue is stability, Lynch says, where different types of natural colors perform differently.
"Natural carotenoids are very stable," he says. "Our natural beta carotene is stable and can be a great natural color in peach, pineapple and French-vanilla flavored dairy products."
The company recently helped a multinational foodservice company reformulate a frozen dairy beverage in order to remove carmine, and it was able to suitably match the previous color.
Lynch points out that use of natural colors surpassed that of synthetic colors in 2011. In the near future, food processors can expect to see natural colors that are more heat tolerant and at lower prices, as more product is used.
"The larger the demand, the more non-GMO tomato seeds LycoRed will plant each year," he says.
Natural flavors continue to play an important role in dairy too.
Stonyfield Farm Inc. Londonderry, N.H., a division of Groupe Danone, and one of the largest makers of organic yogurt in the world, recently rebranded its Greek-style yogurt. Formerly sold under the parent's Oikos brand, the line is now simply called Stonyfield Organic Greek Yogurt.
While the products are made with all-natural ingredients such as organic sugar and fruit, pectin and colorants such as turmeric, the flavor lineup is far from simple There are 12 flavors including Super Fruits, Chocolate and Caramel. Coming from the company that once utilized a marketing slogan of "No Yucky Stuff," this line demonstrates that natural no longer means boring.
Natural colors and other ingredients are part of the all-natural proposition of the products from Lifeway Foods Inc. Morton Grove, Ill.
Lifeway was founded in 1986 to replicate kefir and other eastern European and Russian dairy products for an ethnic consumer base in Chicago. The company has further developed these products for a much broader coast-to-coast audience and now enjoys close to $100 million in annual sales.
Lifeway products like Pro-bugs, a probiotic fruit-flavored beverage for children, are loaded with beneficial cultures and made with natural colors and flavors. To help achieve a thick creamy texture and to provide stability, some of those products also contain guar gum.
Texturants such as guar gum (also known as locust bean gum) play an important role in dairy products, says Donna Klockeman, senior principal food scientist at TIC Gums Inc. White Marsh, Md.
"Hydrocolloids are used in products across the dairy category," Klockeman says. "In standard and protein-fortified milks they can protect protein components from heat treatments, add suspension and customize texture. Blends of hydrocolloids work together with protein ingredients through a combination of thickening and gelling in cultured products (sour cream, cream cheese and yogurt)."
In frozen desserts, the functions of hydrocolloids include thickening, emulsion stability and control of ice crystal growth, she adds.
Klockeman also mentioned the growth in popularity of Greek-style yogurt and the potential for its use as an ingredient in other foods. "Hydrocolloids are a versatile tool for product developers when facing the challenges of new ingredient combinations," she says.
Joshua Brooks, vice president of sales and marketing at Gum Technology Corp. Tucson, Ariz., says a related ingredient group, pectins, provides a similar function as a stabilizer. These fruit-derived, fibrous extracts are used in a variety of dairy products.
"We are also seeing more and more development in dairy-based beverages, especially in the nutraceutical or health and wellness industries," Brooks says. "Many of these are acidified milk products where proteins tend to precipitate. Typically with heating in low pH conditions, pectin-based stabilizers can be used to neutralize the dairy proteins on a molecular level, holding the proteins in place with ionic charges." Knowing which pectins to use is crucial, he adds.
"There are many pectins to choose from which have different pH and calcium and heating variables to consider. With low pH formulations, in cold process where you can’t use pectin’s, either soy-fiber based or cellulose gum based stabilizer systems, will work better."
Brooks says stabilizers (primarily gums) play in important role in cup yogurts too, especially those made with fruit preserves and fruit particulates.
"With the Greek yogurt market taking off as it did, it has given our company opportunities to help in stabilizing not only the white yogurt in aiding with protein stabilization, preventing precipitation and slowing and reducing syneresis, but also in helping to stabilize the fruit preps in the bottom of the cup," he says. "We create a matrix that prevents the fruit prep from syneresing and running into the white layer of the product. Hydrocolloids are all about organizing and controlling the movement of water from one substrate to another."
Because gums have multiple functions, suppliers use their knowledge of how gums interact to create more highly functional synergies to solve multiple issues in food formulation, Brooks adds.
One of the key characteristics that attracts consumers to Greek-style yogurt is its protein content. Because traditional Greek yogurt is strained during processing it contains 15-20g of protein per serving, which is about twice the amount in typical, non-strained yogurt.
As food makers seek to share in Greek yogurt's popularity, they need to offer foods that are protein-rich if consumers are to consider them authentic. Whether the product is a cream cheese spread or a coated pretzel, one way to boost the protein is to include whey protein products.
Whey is a by-product of cheese making (and of strained yogurt, for that matter). While it was once discarded or used in animal feed, the dairy industry has come a long way in recent years to position it as a healthful and functional ingredient.
Grande Custom Ingredients Group Lomira, Wis., offers a wide array of whey- based products to food processors. Among its offerings is an authentic yogurt powder that has numerous applications, including the coating that might be used on the aforementioned yogurt-coated pretzel.
"As Americans become more sophisticated in their appreciation for non-traditional flavors and combinations, we foresee yogurt having an even more widespread application throughout the grocery store," the company said in a recent press release.
If further evidence is needed of the scope of opportunity for dairy products, recent reports by retail market researchers indicate that frozen dairy products such as smoothies and milk shakes — which are already riding a wave of success thanks in part to the popularity of Starbucks products — could get an additional boost from the popularity of yogurt.
Smith Dairy's Mencl says there is no reason that kind of innovation in dairy should not continue.
"Tomorrow’s dairy products will be even more consumer-specific with the introduction of products like omega-3 milk and lactose-free milk," she says.
"Processors are also going outside of their comfort zone and manufacturing products that still include dairy but may not be dairy ingredient-dominant, such as the introduction of iced coffee from a few dairy processors that emerged this past year. Most manufactures are still looking at ways to incorporate the added protein, whether it be naturally through processing or through added whey or milk protein ingredients."
And natural products will be more prevalent too.
"All-natural dairy products will continue to emerge with help from natural color and flavor suppliers and from culture houses that are perfecting body building and natural microbial limiting cultures for the yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese and hard cheese industry," Mencl adds.
Whether they are making simple products reflecting milk's basic nutrition or cutting edge trend-driven functional foods, formulators have a broader choice of ingredients than ever to help those products deliver.