Dairy inclusions have a reputation as decadent indulgences. But it doesn’t take a whole lot of sacrifice, let alone reformulation, to spin the most popular add-ins in a good-for-you direction.

And that’s just what consumers are looking for. Frozen yogurt sales grew 74% from 2011 to 2013, in large part thanks to the category’s “perception of a higher health profile that coincides with increased attention placed on better-for-you products,” said Beth Bloom, food and drink analyst at Mintel, a Chicago-based market research firm. In fact, the researchers found that fully 73% of consumers believe ice cream and frozen novelties fit a healthy lifestyle.

Dairy Foods convened a virtual roundtable of suppliers of fruits, nuts and other inclusions and asked them to update dairy processors. Following is an edited transcript.

Dairy Foods: We know that health and wellness is no passing fad. Remind readers why that’s great news for dairy.

Tom Payne, industry specialist, U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, San Mateo, Calif.: Dairy is a good place to incorporate healthy additions because people view dairy, for the most part, as a healthy category compatible with nutritious, wholesome eating.

Dairy Foods: But if consumers are looking for healthy dairy, are they also looking for healthy dairy inclusions? Why or why not?

Ron Heddleson, director of technical services, QualiTech, Chaska, Minn.: Dairy products contain essential nutrients: healthy protein components, essential minerals, carbohydrates and essential fats. The ability to enhance the levels of any one of these or provide additional nutrients via inclusions is a cost-effective, creative way to address the health-and-wellness market, and ultimately build market share.

Bill Morecraft, general manager, Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, Calif.: Think of Greek yogurt. It’s no longer just for breakfast. It’s become a snack option and sometimes a meal replacement. With consumers snacking more and thinking of yogurt as a snack, the need for healthy inclusion options increases.

Dairy Foods: The Greek-style connection is a great point. But can inclusions actually make a difference in enhancing a dairy product’s nutritional reputation?

Jennifer Stephens, marketing manager, Penford Food Ingredients, Centennial, Colo.: Consumers connect Greek-style yogurt to products with higher levels of protein than regular yogurt. Their awareness of protein’s health benefits — such as satiety, glycemic management and/or muscle building and recovery — has increased over the past two years, creating the opportunity for Greek-style yogurts to include additional healthy components.

Heddleson: Dairy inclusions are perfect as delivery vehicles for ingredients providing health-and-wellness benefits. Adding inclusions to deliver fruit content, greater complete protein content and whole grains has become even more popular and is easy to accomplish.

Dairy Foods: Let’s look at these options in turn, starting with fruit. What is its relationship with dairy?

Kevin W. Holland, product developer, Tree Top, Selah, Wash.: Dairy and fruits are both important parts of a well-balanced diet, so it makes sense to combine them. Furthermore, fruits complement dairy. I think it has to do with the balance of sweetness and acid they bring. Think about strawberries. You have strawberry milk, strawberry ice cream, strawberry yogurt, strawberry cream cheese, etc.

Dairy Foods: Superfruits are finding their way into dairy applications, too. What makes them so super?

Payne: Many contain high amounts of flavonoids, such as anthocyanins, which give berries like blueberries their deep color and provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Antioxidants are high among the attributes consumers are looking for in superfruits. They provide potential health benefits, such as preventing the development of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease. Oxidation and inflammation are involved in some of these chronic diseases; thus antioxidant components in superfruits may help protect against them.

Dairy Foods: Are your customers — and theirs — asking for superfruit inclusions?

Heddleson: We frequently have requests for superfruit inclusions containing açaí, pomegranate, mango, guava and cranberry. Their great taste profile and higher antioxidant content are key attributes behind their popularity. But citrus fruits like orange, lemon, key lime, grapefruit and tangerine work very well in dairy applications, too, providing bright flavor notes that work well in naturally acidic products. These profiles are perennial favorites in yogurts and other dairy products.

Dairy Foods: In other words, “exotic” superfruits like açaí and pomegranate may be trendy, but familiar fruits can bring health-and-wellness excitement to dairy, too?

Holland: Consumers continue coming back to the fruits of their homeland. Superfruits grab headlines, but Americans are also familiar with cherries, apples, peaches, etc. What science has discovered, and is continuing to find, is that these domestic fruits are not only tasty, but also high in antioxidants.

Dairy Foods: Still, my mind keeps turning back to the notion that inclusions should be indulgent. Can fruit really dazzle in dairy?

Holland: Fruit is the best inclusion if you want to target both nutrition and decadence. Before sugar was widely available, fruit is where people went to satisfy their sweet tooth. Not only do fruits contain sugar, but they are full of vitamins and other functional compounds.

Payne: Blueberries can transform a dairy dessert into a positive and healthy pleasure. Intriguing ingredient pairings, such as chocolate and blueberries, blueberry with green tea, blueberry and spices, etc., provide interesting opportunities to push these treats into the healthy-eating arena and position dessert-style dairy in a whole new direction.

Dairy formulators know they can put blueberries on the label and take advantage of the image of blueberries as a healthy, delicious fruit full of natural goodness. Ice creams, yogurt products and frozen dairy delights that contain blueberries can be positioned as “real foods” containing natural antioxidants, not synthetic elements manufactured in a lab.

Dairy Foods: We’re hearing a lot about the popularity of “real food” ingredients. Should dairy formulators be paying attention to this?

Payne: Consumers have told us that they are willing to pay more for products that contain real blueberries over imitation blue bits.

Heddleson: But the perception that only a real fruit piece is a “real” inclusion limits innovation and the true ability to enhance dairy products. We have the capability to produce a blueberry inclusion — all natural, organic and non-GMO, if desired — with higher levels of antioxidants, less sugar and more robust product integrity than a regular blueberry: more consistent size, less waste, minimal color and flavor variability. Inclusions can also be formulated to deliver significant amounts of fruit powder, providing fruit as the first item in the ingredients declaration.

Dairy Foods: Tell us how we can formulate fruit inclusions with less sugar.

Heddleson: Lower sugar levels are possible in the formulation of inclusions for frozen dairy products, especially when unique hydrocolloid texturant systems are used. Our company offers customized alginate-based inclusions that maintain softer textures while delivering great flavor impact and sweetness.

Dairy Foods: Should we be concerned that consumers might view a texturant system as subtracting from an inclusion’s pure fruit “cred?”

Holland: Keeping fruit as the No. 1 ingredient in any inclusion is often the goal, but sometimes we need to add other ingredients to meet the functional attributes the developer wants. It’s a balancing act, and there are compromises.

Dairy Foods: That said, what would you recommend as the best fruit forms to use in dairy inclusions?

Payne: Frozen and IQF [individually quick frozen] blueberries can be ground directly into dairy mixes, imparting rich blueberry flavor and showing lots of blueberry in the skin. Blueberry purée is wonderful in ice creams and sorbet. 

Liquid blueberry co-products have many applications, too. Uses include smoothies, frozen desserts, ice creams and yogurts. Even better, the low pH range of blueberry juice and blueberry purée provides tangy flavor and helps improve storage stability.

Dairy Foods:  Turning to nuts, they’re closely aligned with fruit as a natural nutritional powerhouse. Bring us up-to-date on the latest nut nutrition science.

Molly Spence, regional director of North America, Almond Board of California (ABC), Modesto, Calif.: According to research from last year, whole almonds may provide 20% fewer calories than Nutrition Facts labels currently state (129 calories per ounce instead of the current 160).

A study published in October 2013 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that snacking on 1.5 ounces of almonds a day reduced hunger and appetite without increasing body weight. Despite eating an additional 250 calories from almonds daily, neither calorie intake or body weight increased among participants.

Morecraft: A report published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that people who ate a handful of nuts on a daily basis were 30% less likely to die from any cause over a 30-year period than those who didn’t consume nuts. This important research suggests that regular consumption of nuts, such as almonds, could lead to health benefits and perhaps even a longer life.

Dairy Foods: Are consumers and health professionals acting on all this good news about nuts? Is it increasing demand?

David Groll, corporate executive chef, director of culinary development, McAlister’s Deli, Alpharetta, Ga.: I see leading nutritionists publicly stating that we should include more nuts and seeds in our diets as healthy sources of protein and good fats. They really give a great healthy-halo effect.

We’re really including them on our menus, and being rewarded for it from our guests. Especially when we’re publishing the nutritional attributes of our menu items, guests recognize that these ingredients are good for you. And they sell.

Dairy Foods: Beyond nutrition, how do nuts draw consumers to dairy?

Morecraft: Almonds add two great sensory characteristics that are popular with consumers: texture and crunch. Both provide a terrific contrast to the smooth mouthfeel of yogurt, and this has been a driver in many new-product formulations: getting that crunch factor as an inclusion, or in something like a granola blend-in that the consumer adds.

Groll: Roasted walnuts or seeds add crunch and a whole other flavor. That’s something people really like from a sensory and an eating-pleasure standpoint. You can chop them up, use them whole, fold them into yogurt or ice cream, or use them as a coating for an ice cream bar to enhance the visual appeal.

Dairy Foods: Share some strategies for choosing and formulating nut inclusions into dairy.

Morecraft: The form of almond depends on the texture you are aiming for in the finished product. When used in yogurt or ice cream, sliced or chopped almonds complement the taste without overpowering the desired creamy texture.

Jennifer Eastman, senior food scientist, Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division: The main challenge to working with nut inclusions in dairy is moisture migration. Moisture in nuts is typically 3% to 5%; dairy systems generally have much higher moisture content: 60% and higher. If nuts are added to the dairy product directly, moisture will equilibrate, making the nuts soft or soggy.

This can be mitigated by packaging nuts in a way for the consumer to add directly to the product prior to consuming. There are many yogurt products on the market that follow this example. For ice creams and frozen novelties including nuts, they’ll remain crunchy if a moisture barrier is added to enrobe the entire nut. A great example would be chocolate.

Dairy Foods: Nutrition authorities are encouraging us to consume more whole grains. How can we help consumers do that via dairy inclusions?

Brook Carson, director of R&D, ADM Milling, Overland Park, Kan.: The possibilities are endless for grain-based inclusions. Soft cookie pieces, firm cookie pieces, high-protein crisps, high-protein clusters and brownie pieces are all great places to add whole grains. Multiple varieties are available that can add unique interest to a product, as well as multiple attributes and nutritional benefits.

Dairy Foods: Tell us more about these grains and the value they bring.

Sarah Wood, senior applications scientist, Penford Food Ingredients, Centennial, Colo.:Some hot-ticket grains include chia, flaxseed, millet, oats, rice, legume flours, sorghum and teff. Other whole grains and ancient grains such as amaranth, teff, spelt and Kamut can be puffed and used as inclusions to boost protein, vitamin and mineral content. Clusters can use a wide range of grains.

Carson: Sorghum flour is one example of a gluten-free whole grain that could be a great fit for dairy inclusions, delivering both texture and the benefits of whole grain.

Dairy Foods: Whole grains are healthful in their own right, but how can we formulate them into inclusions with an even stronger good-for-you punch?

Carson: Making minor adjustments to the inclusion formula may have a big impact on nutrition. For example, you might consider using bean flours to add protein and fiber to an inclusion such as cookie pieces.

Granola is a popular add-in for yogurts, but it can be high in sugar. A protein-binding system could replace sugar, creating a granola that has less sugar.

Stephens: We can formulate high-moisture inclusions like syrups and ribbons to provide fiber’s health benefits. Soluble fibers can partially replace sugar and high-fructose corn syrup to reduce the caloric content in support of low- or reduced-sugar claims.

Another concept could be an extruded or puffed inclusion containing a non-GMO, potato-based resistant starch or a non-GMO white-corn fiber to increase fiber content.

Dairy Foods: Are whole grains difficult to work with in inclusions? What formulation and processing caveats should we heed?

Ibrahim Abbas, senior R&D manager, Penford Food Ingredients, Centennial, Colo.: Dairy products are high-water systems that will quickly hydrate whole-grain inclusions such as clusters and puffs. A key success criterion of the inclusion is its ability to maintain good eating qualities without becoming soft and soggy quickly. This can potentially be achieved by controlling water activity and/or formulating the inclusion components to resist hydration in a dairy medium.

Carson: The attributes of the inclusion should be based on the substrate. For example, if the goal is to add a particulate to yogurt, the particulate would need to be firm and dense enough to hold up over an extended time in a moist environment. But by adding the inclusion at consumption or just before, the product maintains its integrity, meaning there might be more opportunity for formulation flexibility.

Dairy Foods: This is great advice. Overall, what’s the key to designing dairy inclusions that are both good and good for you?

 Heddleson: The key considerations are to deliver a burst of flavor that provides contrast to, yet complements, the dairy base. In addition, the inclusion must deliver a contrasting texture and vibrant — yet natural — color. But don’t discount decadence: Consumers’ expectations for great taste delivered from healthy inclusions are much higher than before.

There's more online in our digital edition. Kimberly J. Decker's "What we talk about when we talk about texture" looks at how food scientists approach the descriptor "creamy."