The global dairy markets are mired in a trough and the worst may not be over. Projections for true market recovery have been pushed well into 2016. What to do in the meantime? As in most parts of life, when things are toughest, we’re playing to our strengths.
For dairy, our strength is protein – high-quality, versatile and nutritious protein.
In recent years, U.S. dairy suppliers have channeled more of the whey stream up the ladder toward higher-protein, higher-value products – concentrates and isolates of whey and milk with more than 80% protein. Close to 60% of the whey stream now goes into high-protein ingredients, up from about 30% a decade ago. Production of whey protein isolate (WPI) has doubled since 2008. Production of milk protein concentrate and isolate is up 70% in just the last four years.
This trend is reflected in U.S. exports as well. This year, for the first time, the export value of WPI is greater than the export value of dry sweet whey.
The four main drivers of dairy ingredient demand? Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition ... in a functional format. Dairy proteins can improve muscle tone, prevent stunting, slow sarcopenia, stimulate muscle synthesis and growth, change body composition and reduce incidence of low birth weight. In short, the nutrition provided by dairy proteins can improve quality of life from cradle to grave.
Dairy proteins in food aid
There are interesting things happening in nutrition research and the policies that are shaped by that science. Many of these developments center on use of dairy proteins in food aid and other “bottom of the income pyramid” foods. This is invariably behind-the-scenes work that doesn’t make the headlines, but it’s critical to ensuring dairy has a place in the diet for the millions of under-nourished people in Africa and Southeast and South Asia.
For instance, last year, the humanitarian and development agency UNICEF pitched Codex on a global standard for ready-to-use foods distributed as food aid. The proposed standard, however, didn’t mandate any dairy content. After much debate, the item was tabled until later this year. In the meantime, staff from the U.S. Dairy Export Council met with representatives of UNICEF to educate them on the benefits of dairy proteins in addressing severe malnutrition. Staff is working with UNICEF to resubmit its application, this time with dairy in the formulation.
One of our messages is that newer technologies and a better understanding of amino-acid requirements have led to significantly better ways to measure protein quality.
Measuring protein quality
An expert group from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization recently recommended replacing the current method of measuring protein quality (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score, or PDCAAS) with an improved one (Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score, or DIAAS) which ranks dairy proteins significantly higher in their bioavailability than vegetable sources. Given the importance of protein quality to malnourished populations, USDEC, working with Global Dairy Platform, National Dairy Council and others, is pushing to get pre-competitive research completed that should accelerate the adoption of DIAAS as the FAO’s standard.
One of the outcomes of malnutrition is stunting – the underdevelopment of children in the precious first 1,000 days from conception, which leads to development problems with lifelong consequences. When it comes to food aid, here, too, dairy protein can be part of the solution. This is another area where the pre-competitive work of USDEC and others is geared to delivering sound evidence on the recommended dose of dairy in therapeutic and supplementary foods to the World Health Organization for policy development.
Addressing the cost issue
Aid agencies have, in the past, sought to remove skim milk powder from food aid products to make them less expensive. Here’s where we can find a silver lining in today’s depressed dairy markets.
According to Dairy Australia’s “Dairy Affordability Index,” which takes into account commodity prices and local currency exchange rates, buyers in a number of major import markets, including China and Indonesia, are finding dairy the “least expensive” that it’s been since the global financial crisis. Significantly, relative to soy protein, dairy protein also is the most affordable since the post-financial crisis trough of 2009.
Demographers note that the vast majority of global population growth in the decades ahead will come from Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia.
One of the best ways to lift dairy markets off the floor is to tap new consumer segments, such as the ones that will consume dairy but only when it’s affordable. And part of the equation is displacing plant proteins through new nutritional findings that document our superiority and efficacy for vulnerable groups on all continents.
If we can offer more affordable versions of milk-based foods and beverages, backed by research-based evidence, the potential for sustained commercial business remains significant.