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The road to health and wellness is getting more congested. With a rapidly expanding base of consumers seeking and embracing dairy products with better-for-you attributes, processors are leveraging the ingredients that will drive traffic.

Indeed, the sharper consumer focus on healthy eating is having a significant impact on dairy product development. As more shoppers seek selections with such attributes as low in sugar and fat or rich in nutrients, ingredient suppliers are moving to support the growing demand for nutritious offerings. 

“The pandemic was a significant factor in consumers reassessing their diets,” says Casey McCormick, director of product development for Sweegen, a Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.-based ingredient manufacturer. “There is pressure on brands to deliver great-tasting products and give consumers options that fit into their diets and lifestyles.”

Consumer research from Ingredion Incorporated, a Westchester, Ill.-based ingredient developer, reveals that dairy is among the top food and beverage categories for which consumers expect clean and simple labels, states Ivan Gonzales, marketing director, dairy. 

“Clean-label considerations continue to influence ingredient selection in the dairy space,” adds Christine Addington, senior technical services specialist, dairy, for Cargill, a Minneapolis-based ingredient supplier. “Consumers view milk and other dairy products as wholesome, and they expect these product labels to be the same.”

Because many shoppers already perceive dairy to be natural and healthy, “it’s essential not to undermine that perception with the use of artificial and chemical-sounding ingredients,” says Jeannette O’Brien, vice president with GNT USA Inc., a Tarrytown, N.Y.-based food and beverage coloring provider. Many brands, she notes, are switching to clean-label solutions and driving demand for plant-based color concentrates.

Adding protein to dairy beverages might affect a product’s viscosity, color, flavor, and mouthfeel. Photo courtesy of GNT USA Inc.

Put the brakes on sugar

Products with less sugar are of key interest to dairy shoppers as well, Addington says, including chocolate milk and other selections that target children. She notes, however, that while Cargill’s research consistently rates sugar as the ingredient consumers are most likely to avoid, many shoppers also are wary of artificial sweeteners. 

“That’s why zero-calorie sweeteners like stevia continue to make significant gains,” she notes. 

Dairy selections with less sugar also generate the best opportunity for repeat purchases, McCormick says. “While sugar plays a key role in many dairy products, not only as a sweetener but also for functionality, it can be reduced or even replaced,” he notes.

McCormick agrees that consumers are seeking ingredients with a natural appeal such as stevia and allulose, a low-calorie sugar, but notes that such alternatives can’t work alone in products. 

“When sugar is reduced or replaced with a natural sweetener, processors must build back sweetness, texture, flavor, and taste,” he states.

Because sugar contributes functional benefits, successfully reducing its use requires processors to also leverage a combination of high-intensity sweeteners, bulking agents, and texturizers, Addington notes. In addition, there is the challenge of masking bitterness, mitigating acidity, building back mouthfeel, and creating a satisfying sweetness, McCormick says. 

Decreasing sugar and adding nutrients to dairy products, meanwhile, create the need to cover up strange textures from the fibers, proteins, vitamins, and minerals that developers incorporate when fashioning good-for-you selections, says Charlie Hall, food technologist with International Food Products Corp. (IFPC), a Fenton, Mo.-based ingredient supplier. 

“This requires the need to make the overall taste better, not just sweeter,” he states.

Nevertheless, growing consumer interest in products without added sugar, along with the popularity of the low-carbohydrate, high-fat ketogenic diet, is resulting in “unprecedented demand” for sweeteners from the dairy sector, particularly fermented dairy, says Thom King, food scientist and CEO of Icon Foods, a Portland, Ore.-based sweetener developer. 

“Sugar has been vilified over the past few years, and this trend is continuing to drive demand for clean-label sugar reduction,” he states.

Newer flavors could help boost interest in mature categories. Photo courtesy of Sweegen

Yield to what is popular

Demand is increasing as well for ingredients that help with immunity and gut health, Addington says, including probiotics in yogurt. Newer health-supportive ingredients such as postbiotics also can serve as product differentiators, she states. 

“Dairy naturally has a health halo, and brands are looking to ingredients that can further bolster that image,” she notes.

Mike Medina, category marketing director, specialized nutrition, dairy & private label for ADM, a Chicago-based ingredient supplier, says informed consumers are conscious of the broader benefits of a healthy gut microbiome, including digestive health, metabolic wellness, and emotional wellbeing.

“Microbiome-supporting ingredients like fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals, prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics are continually in high demand,” he says.

To successfully navigate the expanding base of available ingredients and leverage the optimal selections, processors should first understand a brand’s target group and identify their key motivators and concerns, while pinpointing gaps in the current offerings, Gonzales says. That includes learning how consumers perceive the ingredients already in use and the ingredients’ impact on their purchasing decisions while identifying the additives that have a better perception, acceptability, and recognition.

Dairy processors should consider such qualities as solubility, resilience in processing, compatibility with other ingredients, and the ability to address customer and consumer needs when selecting ingredients for specific applications, Medina adds. 

“Sourcing high-quality ingredients, applying the latest food and processing technologies, and leveraging deep technical expertise can help improve dairy formulations,” he notes.

In addition, it is crucial that processors have a clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve when making ingredient choices, Addington says. She notes, for instance, that many dairy products must withstand acid, shear, and heat, but not all ingredients can function in those conditions.

“Shelf life is a factor too, whether it’s managing the freeze-thaw cycles of a frozen dessert or preventing syneresis in an indulgent yogurt,” Addington says, noting that clean-label considerations also can limit ingredient choices.

The greater focus by product developers on clean labels can include the use of plant-based color concentrates. Photo courtesy of GNT USA Inc.

Avoid the potholes

Incorporating the necessary ingredients into dairy products, however, can be tricky, Addington says. She notes that Cargill receives many requests from customers looking to simplify their ingredient statements, but “many of the ingredients targeted for removal are highly functional and can be difficult to replace.”

Formulators also need to strike a balance among numerous additives with various textures and properties when crafting tasty and nutritious ready-to-drink beverages, Medina says. Increased levels of protein, for instance, might affect a beverage’s viscosity, color, flavor, and mouthfeel. 

“Incorporating taste modulators and mouthfeel enhancers can help balance flavor and increase richness to achieve an appealing sensory experience,” he says. “With applications such as yogurt, ice cream, and cheese, formulators need to understand the impact of production processes and formulations so they can select and optimize the level and performance of incorporated ingredients.”
 Fiber is another element that could be challenging to incorporate, Medina notes. 

“Some fiber ingredients can dramatically change the texture of the product,” he states. “Additionally, some fibers may cause bloating or gastrointestinal discomfort or break down to sugar.”

Even the better recognized and accepted ingredients do not always produce the functional attributes or characteristics that shoppers want when consuming dairy goods, Gonzales says. 

“Creating the expected eating experience is where the challenging parts start, especially when it comes to selecting and approving the ingredients that will deliver on the desired eating and stability attributes and on the desired label considerations,” he notes.

Other dairy processing issues include leveraging the necessary additives that will maintain product stability throughout the supply chain and during storage by withstanding high temperatures or ultraviolet light, O’Brien notes. 

“In addition, the high-fat content of certain dairy products such as yogurt, milk, ice cream and … frozen novelties can impede the ability of a color to properly interact with the product, she says. “Working with experts with extensive experience matching colors and products throughout every step of the manufacturing process is one of the most effective ways to ensure that the optimal ingredients are used for each product.” 

Having the wherewithal to integrate the necessary additives into products can be yet another processing obstacle. King notes, for instance, that while the right mix of sweeteners might enhance functionality, mouthfeel, and temporal experience, the ingredients are not always easy to incorporate. Though the supply chain for erythritol is stable and stevia and monk fruit are plentiful, the current availability and price of allulose “is a struggle,” he states, noting that it can’t compete with sugar’s low price.

“Many times, having access to ingredients that are perceived as more acceptable and capable of delivering on the ‘right’ attributes such texture, stability and taste are not easy to come by, which can have an impact on the overall formulation cost,” Gonzales says.

He adds, however, that Ingredion research found that many consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that deliver on their expectations of being healthier and more sustainable while having cleaner labels.

Sweeteners are popular sugar substitutes in dairy products, but users face the challenge of maintaining the necessary texture, flavor, and taste. Photo courtesy of Sweegen

Venture off the beaten boulevard

While operating challenges exist, astute processors and ingredient suppliers are successfully overcoming a range of production issues. Addington notes, for instance, that developers are replacing such emulsifiers as mono- and diglycerides with more label-friendly sunflower or canola lecithin. Lecithin will hold the fat and water portions of a frozen dessert system in place and can help control overrun, which for ice cream is the amount of expansion achieved by incorporating air into the product during the freezing process, she says.

Product developers also are using pectin, a label-friendly and highly functional ingredient that is sourced from fruit peels, to make drinkable yogurts possible by protecting and stabilizing proteins in acidic conditions, Addington notes. 

“Without pectin, the proteins stick together, forming large clumps,” she says, “which settle to the bottom of the container, resulting in a gritty, unappealing texture.”

Flavor innovation is becoming more prevalent as well, Medina says. 

“In traditional dairy products, on-trend flavors help revitalize a mature category,” he notes. “New and intriguing flavors can help dairy meet expanded consumer needs such as indulgent dessert-inspired flavors and fun kid-friendly flavors.”

But increased shopper expectations for dairy products that support health and wellness will likely be the key catalyst for ingredient enhancements. 

“Consumers are increasingly adding ways to incorporate healthy eating habits,” says An Ho, IFPC research and development director. “Chocolate has always been known for its antioxidant and mood-improving attributes, but it can be easily enhanced with plant-based fats for creaminess, protein, fiber, vitamins, or minerals. It does not always have to be reduced or free of its standard ingredients like sugar or fat as we typically see. Instead, adding health and value to it will make it enjoyable as well.”