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Innovating dairy proteins: Spotlight on product developments and nutrition needs

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Global product launches with dairy-based proteins increased by 5% from 2022 to 2023, according to Innova Market Insights data. Nearly half of last year’s product launches were based on milk protein, followed by whey protein ingredients. Protein was the leading product claim.

Nutrition Insight catches up with Valio, Kerry Dairy Ireland and Ingredion to examine consumer demand and product innovations in dairy and plant-based proteins.

Emma Laivisto, head of distributor sales at Valio, and Dr. Anu Turpeinen, the company’s nutrition research manager, highlight a growing focus on the quality of dietary proteins, as this determines the nutritional benefits proteins provide.

“As the ability of our body to utilize dietary protein decreases during aging, high-quality protein is essential for the elderly. Milk protein is an optimal choice during aging to support physical functioning, with its balanced composition of essential amino acids, efficient absorption and high bioavailability.”

“Consumers are increasingly seeking snacks that offer specific nutritional benefits, with claims such as ‘low in sugar’ and ‘high in protein’ being particularly desirable. Healthy snacking for active lifestyles, and natural food ingredients are a big trend at the moment. Through milk proteins, the food industry can design products that meet these consumers’ preferences.”

Meanwhile, Huey van Vliet, commercial director at Kerry Dairy Ireland, notes that dairy benefits from consumers’ meat consumption reduction due to environmental sustainability or animal welfare reasons.

“Demand for dairy proteins is robust; customers see high protein yogurts, drinks and desserts as a convenient and accessible way for people to top up their daily protein consumption.”

Dairy-based product range
Valio has designed a new product portfolio for manufacturing to meet the growing consumer demand for high-protein, lactose-free and great-tasting snacking products.

Laivisto and Turpeinen note that consumers are becoming more demanding and want healthy and tasty products.Valio has developed a portfolio of milk-based ingredients that meet consumer demands for healthy and tasty products, across all ages.

“We want to be able to offer our customers a comprehensive portfolio of high-quality milk-based ingredients that meet the demands for all life stages — from infants and kids throughout adulthood and healthy aging,” they reveal.

Looking to the future, Laivisto expects that sustainability will play an even more significant role and is also one of the critical topics in Valio’s customers’ roadmaps. “We aim for carbon-neutral dairy by 2035.”

“Digestive wellness continues to be one of the key topics worldwide, and dairy-based ingredients are becoming more popular in areas where milk products have not been commonly used before.”

Van Vliet highlights that Kerry supplies high-quality milk proteins for infant, medical and clinical nutrition applications to meet customers’ needs for low micro/spores limits, low lactose and lactose-free options, ensuring that proteins are heat stable for processing.

“However, our recent innovations have been in the protein-fortified and protein-enhanced food categories. Here, customers need increased protein but with good functionality in viscosity, solubility and taste. We have offerings specifically formulated for the high protein yogurts, drinks, desserts and bars segments.”

He suggests that brand owners expand their range to leverage the trend in high protein categories. At the same time, he cautions that consumer awareness of dairy-based protein needs to be built — educating that dairy proteins have a superior amino acid profile and are an excellent vehicle for protein intake.


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Product innovations
Valio’s latest launch, Valio Eila MPC 65, includes milk’s natural whey and casein proteins and amino acids. Laivisto explains that this helps keep the ingredient lists short because the ingredient doesn’t require anything else to hide its natural, milky flavor.

“The result is a nutritious high-protein drink or pudding with an excellent taste, just like a regular snack. With Valio Eila MPC 65, you can diversify your protein product portfolio, such as ultra-high-temperature processed products such as ready-to-drink beverages and shakes.”

She adds that the new ingredient can also be used for fermented products such as spoonable and drinkable yogurts and neutral products like puddings, desserts or even ice cream. “The applications are endless.”

“Whey protein is widely used in sports nutrition and protein-rich applications. We wanted to launch an alternative product — milk protein concentrate — which contains casein in addition to whey protein and brings an excellent flavor profile to the end product that doesn’t need to be masked.”Kerry’s recent innovations focused on protein-fortified and protein-enhanced food categories.

Hydrolyzed milk protein
Valio’s Dr. Turpeinen explains that hydrolysis of milk protein enables Valio to produce products suitable for different consumer groups, with growing evidence of the benefits of hydrolyzed protein.

“Protein hydrolysis has been shown to enhance protein absorption, which is important for athletes and the elderly. We have shown that hydrolyzed protein causes less gastrointestinal problems than intact protein, enhancing gut comfort and making it possible for sensitive individuals to use high-protein dairy products.”

“Regarding infant formulas, our future aim is to bring infant formula protein composition again one step closer to breast milk with specific hydrolysis of cow’s milk proteins not found in breast milk. Protein hydrolysates for allergy prevention enable us to produce products suitable for infants with special nutritional needs.”

She further highlights a recent clinical study that found improved balance and physical performance in older women who consumed dairy products rich in partially hydrolyzed protein and milk fat globule membrane.

“What was noteworthy is that benefits were seen without additional exercise,” she adds.

Dairy as the gold standard
Matt Yurgec, senior manager of plant-based protein applications at Ingredion, notes that dairy proteins are considered the “gold standard” for various categories, including nutritional beverages, snack bars and meal replacements. “This is in addition to being the gold standard in traditional food applications such as cheese, yogurt and milk.”

“Over the years, plant-based protein manufacturers have improved their products to deliver innovation similar to dairy proteins. For instance, pea proteins that are more soluble in beverages, provide a softer texture in nutritional bars, or provide better juiciness in plant-based meats,” he says.

“Additionally, there has been significant innovation in proteins derived via fermentation. These proteins have the potential to be functionally and nutritionally equivalent to animal proteins, such as whey protein or egg protein, but are produced via fermentation, rather than traditional animal agriculture practices.”

In addition, these products contribute to improved sustainability. Though Yurgec asserts that the technology is mainly in its infancy, it promises to make “significant gains in the coming years.”

The rise of plant-based
Tara Kozlowich, Ingredion’s director of global strategic marketing in plant-based proteins, tells us that plant-based dairy is a thriving category in the market as consumers increasingly reduce their meat and dairy intake.

“Such lifestyle choices are increasing the demand for dairy alternatives and raising product expectations. Consumers will no longer simply accept dairy mimicry; they’re looking for better variety and improved innovation.”

She explains that broader considerations around a product’s nutritional profile, sustainability credentials, taste, texture and price points impact purchasing behavior.Plant-based protein manufacturers have improved their products to deliver innovation similar to dairy proteins.

“Our proprietary global research shows that 36% of consumers are consuming some form of plant-based milk, making it an area of continued growth and opportunity. In addition, 23% of plant-based milk consumers were first-time consumers in the past month.”

According to Kozlowich, research indicates that consumers are willing to pay more for products with additional protein, while flexitarians perceive plant-based milk as a healthier alternative to animal dairy.

Ingredion’s Proprietary Consumer research suggests that 78% of consumers believe it is essential to have “high protein” claims in their plant-based dairy products and 78% of consumers are willing to pay more than 5% over retail value for “higher protein” claims in plant-based dairy.

Advancing innovation
Consumer demand for plant-based proteins is driving innovation, underscores Kozlowich. “For example, we’re seeing tremendous untapped potential for pulses. Keeping the naturally occurring carbohydrates and fats found in pulses and other plant-based proteins intact can aid in the functionality of the final product formulation.”

“There are new sources of proteins that have been discovered and used — such as proteins from plants that provide a more sustainable and nutritious alternative to animal-based proteins.”

She highlights that Ingredion’s Nutrition Deep Dive 2020 study determined the most critical health and nutrition benefits for plant-based dairy consumers as an “excellent source of protein, supporting overall health and digestive health, made from all-natural ingredients, low in sugar, an excellent source of fiber and low in cholesterol.”

Kozlowich highlights the importance of plant-based protein, texture, and sugar reduction tools to advance plant-based dairy. “Major dairy manufacturers are starting to play in the plant-based dairy market, and they have the scale to bring more innovation to the consumer base.”


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