From sweet to savory, bits and pieces add excitement to ordinary dairy products.

McDonald’s restaurants welcomed 2011 with the introduction of Fruit & Maple Oatmeal. This hot, whole-grain oats cereal is topped with what we in the dairy industry refer to as inclusions or mix-ins. The extras are: brown sugar crystals, diced red and green apples, dried cranberries and two types of raisins.

According to Cindy Goody, senior director of nutrition, McDonald’s Corp., Oak Brook, Ill., “McDonald’s wants to help make it easier and more inviting for our guests to eat more whole grains and fruits, and Fruit & Maple Oatmeal is an effective way to help our customers integrate these important food groups into their daily diets.”

Dairy foods manufacturers would likely benefit from taking this same approach when formulating all types of products - from cheese spreads to ice cream to yogurt parfaits. Including inclusions adds value and creates a point of differentiation with minimal effort, as the same product can function as a base to which chocolate, fruits, nuts and more are blended, swirled or packaged separately so that the consumer can personalize the product with just the right amount in every bite. Some inclusions offer nutritional perks, such as delivering antioxidants, fiber, minerals, vitamins and even omega-3 fatty acids. (The latter is discussed on page 38.)

“A scoop of low-fat dark chocolate walnut ice cream makes a great snack,” says Geri Detroy-Mertens, a registered dietitian based in Chicago. “Those extra ingredients give consumers permission to indulge on something we would normally consider dessert.”

The many nuts among us

Walnuts, like Detroy-Mertens suggests, as well as many tree nuts and peanuts, complement creamy dairy products. Not only do they add flavor, texture and eye appeal, they are loaded with nutrients that interest today’s health- and wellness-seeking consumer. In fact, the health image of nuts received a boost in 2003 when FDA approved a qualified health claim for nuts that linked most nuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, to a reduced risk of heart disease.

The nut industry has been very aggressive with conveying this message to consumers. According to the 2009 IFIC Functional Foods/Foods for Health Consumer Trending Survey sponsored by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), Washington, D.C., a quantitative study designed to measure Americans’ attitudes toward, awareness of and interest in functional foods, or more specifically the ingredient or ingredients in foods that deems them functional, the health and wellness benefits associated with nuts have resonated with Americans. Of 358 respondents, 73% said they are fully aware of this relationship: monounsaturated fats, found for example in olive oil and nuts, for reduced risk of heart disease.

More recent data from this biennial study will be available in the autumn. And the nuts industry expects increased consumer awareness thanks to aggressive marketing efforts by numerous associations and nut-based snack manufacturers, in particular, those who sell nutritional bars. For example, Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill., has made the nutritional profile of nuts the focus of its Planters NUT-rition line of nut-based bars and snack mixes.

“Nutritional bars have raised consumer awareness regarding how different nutrients come together in a nice package, as bars can be very nutrient-dense snacks and meal replacements,” says Detroy-Mertens. Further, nutritional bars also appeal to consumers because they deliver varied tastes and textures - from sweet to salty and crunchy to gooey. Dairy products can do the same when formulators include inclusions.

In most dairy applications, diced, sliced and slivered nuts are best when formulating multi-serving items. The smaller particles disperse throughout the product allowing each serving a healthy dose of the inclusion. Processors should choose various cuts and sizes based on the final appearance, texture and mouthfeel that they are trying to achieve.

In ice cream, manufacturers that want to incorporate a ribbon of flavor would use a nut paste. To create a chunky effect, they would also add large diced pieces, or they may use a smaller dice to increase the dispersion throughout the product. Similarly for cheeses, the final product might be rolled in a nut and fruit combination, thus requiring some type of diced product. A dairy drink manufacturer may use a nut meal or flour in order to create a dairy drink with some texture.

In addition to choosing a specific nut for its inherent flavor profile, nuts can be treated in a variety of ways to bring unexpected flavors to the formulation. For example, roasting enhances a nut’s intrinsic taste, generating a characteristically stronger flavor that becomes a part of the finished product’s sensory profile. Coating or encrusting nuts allows for the addition of flavors not typically associated with nuts, for example, tangy citrus and spicy pepper.

Praline nuts continue to be an attractive inclusion to dairy foods formulators, as the praline coating, which is best described as a browned sugar glaze, not only adds extra crunch and sweetness, but it also keeps nuts from getting soggy. Confectionery coatings provide similar benefits, as well as allow for the addition of color.

When including inclusions, remember that dairy bases are extremely compatible with all types of flavors - even the extremes that seem more appropriate for the candy or snack foods aisle. Suppliers are ready to help you create something that’s never been done before.

Sidebar: Edible Art Project

When Stephen Bikoff and his flavor designers create new offerings for his Los Angeles-based ice cream parlor - L.A. Creamery - they seek out fresh, local ingredients that contain no artificial components. “I hope to redefine ice cream not only as a frozen dessert but also as a true art form,” says Bikoff, who chose Black Friday 2010 as the day to open the doors to his first store.  

They start with an organic ice cream mix from Straus Family Farms, Marshall, Calif., as a base, or “a canvas to which we add other ingredients to create signature artisan ice cream,” he adds. Some of the more unusual creations include Maple Bacon, Sweet Corn & Berry Caramel and Thai Chili Pineapple.

With rapid expansion plans in place, Bikoff recently hired Danielle Keene, a first season finalist of “Top Chef Just Desserts.” With the title of corporate pastry chef, a few of Keene’s first creations for L.A. Creamery are Honeycomb (honeycomb-flavored ice cream layered with handmade honeycomb foam candy) and Roasted Banana (fresh bananas roasted with brown sugar and butter until caramelized, then blended with a lightly rum-flavored ice cream base).