Process and Operations / Dairy, Cheese, Eggs

Dairy Process Innovation: Shelf-Stable Yogurt to Dehydrated Cheese

Novel process technologies keep the dairy category interesting … and growing.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

Innovation is part of Ultima Foods’ DNA, specifically yogurt innovation, a trait that has helped the dairy co-op become Canada’s dominant yogurt manufacturer.

Founded in 1971 by Coopérative Agricole de Granby, a Quebec dairy co-op (now called Agropur), Ultima began operations as the licensed manufacturer and marketer of Yoplait yogurt, filling the role General Mills plays in the U.S.

Innovation is a driver, and the company now produces eight lines of yogurt, including its iögo and Olympic brands. The most distinctive yogurt, however, may be on store shelves next year, when Ultima expects to introduce a shelf-stable version.

“Snacking on the go is one of the big trends,” observes Dan Jewell, vice president-operations at Ultima (www.ultimayog.ca), Longueuil, Quebec, “and portability is key to that.” Non-refrigerated snacks enjoy a big leg up over perishable foods in the portability sweepstakes, and a shelf-stable yogurt would go a long way toward leveraging that advantage.

Microwave drying under vacuum is the enabling technology. Researchers at Vancouver, British Columbia-based EnWave Corp. (www.enwave.net) began working on the yogurt process two years ago, blending yogurt with pre-gelatinized starch before shaping the resulting paste and subjecting it to what EnWave refers to as radiant energy vacuum (REV) technology. According to John Zhang, EnWave’s senior vice president-R&D, heating occurs under 30 millibars of pressure, or 0.435 psi, approximately the atmosphere created by a liquid ring vacuum pump.

REV potentially could lower water’s boiling point to 0°C/32°F, though typically REV evaporates water in the 30°-40°C range, roughly room temperature to body temperature. “During freeze drying, water becomes vapor without going through a liquid state,” explains Zhang. Water activity is below 0.6aW, making even a low-acid product like yogurt shelf-stable.

Assuming packaging has enough integrity to prevent moisture migration and does not allow oxygen to enter and cause rancidity issues, the yogurt should be good for at least a year and possibly more than two, he says.

Eliminating refrigerated distribution is a big advantage in Canadian logistics, given the country’s 4,000-mile southern border and the sparsest population density in the world. Depending on demand, shelf-stable yogurt could be produced at either Ultima Foods’ Granby, Quebec, plant; the Delta, British Columbia, facility; or both.

Ultima recently purchased a 10kW drying unit, a pilot scale version of EnWave's 100kW, 10 magnetron machine most commonly used for industrial-scale production. A 120kW dryer is the largest machine fabricated to date, though company engineers believe scaling up to 240kW is realistic, with a 400kW unit a possibility. They operate in a semi-continuous mode, with vacuum maintained once product is loaded into one of the chambers.

Crunchy cheese snacks

Ultima’s R&D team has been working with REV for nine months. “With the technology, you can pretty much do what you want in terms of taste and texture,” says Jewell, “from chewy to crunchy.” A licensing agreement with EnWave gives the dairy exclusive rights to manufacture and sell shelf-stable yogurt in Canada. An unidentified firm has licensed U.S. rights.

Similar licensing deals for other products are in place, including shelf-stable cheese. The first license was with ND Creations LLP (formerly Nutradried), a Blaine, Wash., food company formed in 2014 and majority owned by EnWave. ND makes and markets Moon Cheese, a puffed cheese snack. Similar products are produced by Gay Lea Foods in Canada, Lake Blue sPA in Chile and Dominant Slice LDA in Portugal. Dominant Slice’s B!t cheese is dried at a temperature lower than 30°C/86°F and has a moisture content of less than 3 percent.

Removing water distorts the price:weight ratio of cheese. On Amazon, packages of Moon Cheese are priced at more than $2 per oz., but it takes 2 oz. of cheese to make 1 oz. of Moon cheese.

REV achieves results similar to freeze drying but with a fraction of the energy input, largely because water is removed much more quickly and evenly. Low processing temperatures increase the bioavailability, taste and color of products.

A dairy-based protein bar is under development in EnWave’s labs. The process would involve a powder containing 40-50 percent protein, mixing and wetting it with fruit or other ingredients to create a paste, then drying it in a bar shape without destroying nutrients, Zhang says. Pharmaceutical applications also are being developed

Protein-packed curds

If a dairy product can be considered both healthy and indulgent, iSnack Corp. checks both boxes with energy bars and crème cups made from farmer’s cheese.

With their dark chocolate coating, Yooli Farmer’s Cheese bars qualify as indulgent while still delivering 6-7g of protein in a 1.8 oz. bar. More protein is packed into Yooli Farmer’s Cheese crèmes, with 15-17g compared to 15-16g of carbs in a 4 oz. cup.

“For people interested in personal fitness, a 1:1 ratio of protein to carbs is desirable,” says Cary Richardson, president of Irvine, Calif.-based iSnack, which goes to market as Yooli Foods (yoolifoods.com). The name is a phonetic take on company founder Yuliya Flynn, an eastern European native who grew up eating farmer’s cheese and was surprised by the dearth of it when she emigrated to the U.S. several years ago.

Richardson describes farmer’s cheese as a cross between ricotta and cottage cheese. Curds are separated and pressed to form solid, unripened cheese that provides a base for additional ingredients.

Most of the milk lactose is separated in the whey, inching Yooli toward the non-dairy snack category. The firm contracted with a cheese maker to use its proprietary process to make the crèmes, and the company is commissioning a production line in Wisconsin to make the bars.

“Our process retains more of the protein than other processes without sacrificing taste,” boasts Richardson. “People want products that taste great, and this happens to be healthy, too.”

Prior to joining Yooli, Richardson focused on product innovation at Nestle and Tyson Foods before assuming a consulting role with food start-ups. Encouraged by the reception the crèmes and bars received at Natural Products Expo West, he took on the challenge of developing a market for them. Convenience stores are “starving for fresh, convenient products,” and those retailers will be one distribution target.

“There’s pretty significant potential for expansion of the yogurt section in stores,” adds Richardson, “but when you look at farmer’s cheese as an ingredient replacement, we see huge potential.” The product doesn’t crystallize when frozen.

Cheese is sold by weight, and removing water distorts the price per ounce. Nonetheless, he is optimistic about the products’ reception.

“There’s a lot more acceptance of new and boutique brands from start-ups today,” Richardson reflects. “With social media, it’s easier to get buzz and awareness. You don’t need $50 million sales to build an audience. At this point, there’s unlimited potential.”

Global demand for protein has propelled U.S. dairy exports from an afterthought to a $4.8 billion business, accounting for 14 percent of dairy sales. Most of that protein leaves the country in a dry state, and a range of fractionation technologies play a critical role in isolating high-value proteins like lactoferrin.

Improved documentation of the point of origin, greater consistency and processing advancements that improve purity and lower bacterial spore counts have helped boost demand for U.S. exports of milk and whey protein concentrates, notes Phillip Tong, director of the Dairy Products Technology Center at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

Continuous chromatographic separation (CSEP) exemplifies the continuous improvement that has made protein isolation more cost-effective and the end products more affordable. Properly configured, CSEP eliminates the need for pre-filtration of the dairy fluid, which expanded bed chromatography requires.

“The CSEP approach has introduced to chromatographic separation cost-effectiveness not possible using conventional chromatographic systems,” writes Geoffrey Smithers, a biochemist and dairy consultant based in Melbourne, Australia. Smithers recently was named an IFT Fellow in recognition of his work in refining technologies such as CSEP to deliver novel food ingredients.

Separation and drying technology usually advances in increments, though vacuum assisted microwave drying demonstrates that leaps are sometimes possible. Finding the sweet spot between what is possible and what is affordable is the processing challenge. When it is met, innovation pushes the category forward.