Back in July 2018, Dairy Foods ran an online poll asking readers which dairy category they believed was most in need of innovation. When all was said and done, milk rose to the top as the category screaming loudest for attention, with 41% of the votes.

That didn’t surprise me. The only real innovations I’ve observed in the category in recent years are higher-protein formulations, convenience-minded packaging tweaks and some unique seasonal flavors.

But milk processors actually have ample opportunity to develop truly innovative milk-based beverages that meet consumer wants and needs.


Think beyond chocolate milk

In “Think Outside the Jug,” a presentation that took place during the International Dairy Foods Association’s 2019 Dairy Forum, Paul Ziemnisky, executive vice president of global innovation partnerships for Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), pointed out that milk is still present in 95% of households. But it’s facing some stiff competition from new beverage categories — and is part of fewer and fewer consumption occasions: 8.3% in 2017 of them compared to 18.9% of them in 1987. To keep milk on the table, dairy processors need to think about new products, he said.

For its part, DMI is investing to help drive growth in milk-based beverages, Ziemnisky said. With today’s consumers embracing a “holistic lifestyle,” DMI recently looked at four consumer-relevant platforms for innovating within the category and is testing approximately 40 concepts. Those platforms and some selected concepts include:

  • Peak performance (health-promoting). Some of the concepts DMI is testing under this platform include “milk gone nuts” (a milk- and nut-based combination beverage), “moon milk” (milk with lavender and melatonin to promote sleep) and “yo-fir” (kefir plus yogurt).
  • Sensorial experience (taste-emphasizing). “Hinted” (milk with a hint of flavor), “tea mates” (tea creamer/cream cheese tea) and “shake shoppe frothers” (milk with the nitrogen treatment) are among the on-trend concepts DMI is taking a look at here.
  • Functionality (energy for the time-deprived). A couple of the concepts DMI is testing under this platform are “power fuels” (high-protein milk beverages) and “plosh” (a blend of tea, coffee and milk).
  • Responsible consumption (sustainability minded). “Green life” (all-natural milk blended with upcycled fruit) is one of the concepts DMI is testing here.

During the same session, John Lucey, a professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin and the director of the Center for Dairy Research (and a Dairy Foods columnist), also discussed opportunities in milk-related innovation. One such opportunity he put forward is tied to emerging milk-derived ingredients such as milk-derived whey for infant formula (via filtration technology), β -casein concentrate for pharmaceutical applications and conjugated proteins for nutritional and beverage applications.


Packaging counts, too

It’s true: Product innovation could go a long way to reinvigorate sales in the milk category. But a little innovation on the packaging side, too, certainly couldn’t hurt.

In its “2019 Food and Beverage Packaging Trends” white paper, based on data from the annual EcoFocus Trend Study, Evergreen Packaging called out four innovation challenges for packaging in 2019:

  • Work harder to protect taste: Shoppers feel strongly that taste should not be compromised or altered because of its packaging.
  • Work harder to align with ingredients: Like ingredients, packaging materials are having an increased impact on purchasing decisions. This creates innovation opportunities as brands seek to meet evolving consumer demands.
  • Work harder to be responsible: The study shows 68% of grocery shoppers say it is extremely or very important “to choose foods or beverages that are packaged responsibly,” and the same percentage of shoppers strongly agree or agree that “I try to buy products in packaging that is recyclable.”
  • Work harder to share values: The package itself and the information on the label are important to grocery shoppers, but their environmental responsibility interests now go much deeper.