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.