Today's dairy industry might not be the best place to look for examples of the herd instinct.
In its eagerness to pursue new opportunities, from new applications of milk proteins to yield optimisation and product protection, the industry is on the offensive.
This is partly because, as RTS points out in its recent Food Manufacture report on Yogurt, desserts and milk drinks, liquid milk sales in the UK have long been in decline. This has put the onus on added-value dairy products to build new sales - and presumably to mop up all that undrunk milk.
The added-value segment has not stood still. RTS estimates that it accounts for just 8.6% of dairy volumes, but for nearly 22% of value.
Nor have dairy ingredient firms been sticking to their sector. Specific nutritional and functional benefits are being transplanted into far-flung corners of the food industry.
Take the example of whey protein isolates. Vice president for research and development at Glanbia Nutritionals in the US Eric Bastian maps the route that whey has taken out of sports nutrition into mainstream food in North America. He cites examples from Kelloggs and from applications in protein waters.
Glanbia's commercial director for Europe, Carla Clissmann, says: "We're following a similar pattern in Europe, from specialist sports nutrition on to endurance products, and now more general nutrition."
Some of these opportunities are shared by proteins in general, she says, especially in the area of weight management. Here, satiety and reduction of the glycaemic index profile are opening new doors for whey proteins.
Friesland Campina DMV in the Netherlands points out that, overall, the lower cost of the filtration technology used to extract proteins from milk helps to explain the newfound popularity of the end products. These include both casein and whey proteins, but also recombined milk protein concentrate.
Of the various types of application, when it comes to clinical formulas for direct administration to patients, the inclusion of caseinates ensures that essential nutrients are present. Technical service manager Toine Hendrickx says: "The ingredients also have to be heat- and sterilisation-stable, as caseinates are. Whey proteins, without further processing, are not so heat-stable."
== Casein versus whey ==
Here, he adds, there has to be a trade-off between the greater nutritional benefits of whey and the stability of caseinates.
In sports nutrition, there may be other reasons why caseinates are used in some products. But again, says Hendrickx, whey proteins are perceived to offer better nutrition.
There are other contrasts, from the greater acid-stability of whey proteins to the (allegedly) greater nutritional benefits of casein proteins for younger people. The availability of these different milk proteins in the form of concentrates and isolates can be a real benefit to manufacturers.
Resistance to the herd instinct also means, of course, that different suppliers are pushing in different directions. At Danisco Cultures, for instance, business unit director for starters and ripening John Rea explains that the firm has patented cultures with a protective role. "These produce metabolic inhibitory molecules such as organic acids that prevent the growth of target micro-organisms - yeasts and moulds." Importantly, these cultures allow manufacturers to maintain a clean label, and provide a route around EU restrictions on the use of biocides in packaging, says the company.
But not everyone sees the opportunity here, at least as far as products such as yogurts.
At Chr. Hansen, vice president for commercial development, food cultures and enzymes Michel Guiraudou asks: "How often do you come across a yogurt with a fungal growth on the surface? In some parts of the world you might. But with improved hygiene, these problems seem to disappear. Is it really worth working on a fantastic solution for a problem which may disappear in 10 years around the world?"
Then again, he adds rather cryptically that his firm is working on alternative 'tools' for protection of other dairy-type products.
One area where many ingredients firm do seem to agree is the potential of probiotics, although quite how and where they should be applied allows room for differentiation.
Guiraudou reckons that, to date, up to 95% of applications of probiotics have been in yogurts. "But why not apply the two well-documented claim domains of gastro-intestinal health and immune stimulation to another food matrix?" he suggests. "There have been many attempts to put probiotics into other foods, and there are some interesting learnings here."
Regarding probiotics, Rea at Danisco says: "We see a rise in two main areas of interest: cheese and ice cream. For cheese, most of the applications are focusing on semi-hard cheese slices or blocks, or on fresh or cottage cheeses. For ice cream, the demand is naturally increasing in low-fat types of product."
Danisco has launched its probiotic drinking straw in partnership with Unistraw and Tetra Pak. Filters hold hundreds of beads coated with the firm's Howaru probiotics inside the straw. This can be used in conjunction with long-life, heat-treated products such as milk and juices. Ambient probiotic shelf-life has already been extended to a year, says Danisco, or twice that in a freeze-dried variant.
Chr. Hansen is also looking hard at this area. "We're trying to find other technical solutions to ensure the survivability of probiotics without chilling the product," says Guiraudou. Again, the juice market is a major target here.
At the same time, the company is aiming at applications beyond the well-documented domains of gastro-intestinal and immunity benefits. "There are specific probiotic cultures with an impact on satiety," says Guiraudou. "But getting through the various lab steps and studies takes time, and a product here could still be two years away."
Alongside nutritional and health benefits, dairy cultures can provide valuable benefits when it comes to texture. This can make a huge difference to the way in which consumers perceive low-fat and indulgent yogurts, for instance. According to Danisco, the evaluation of texturising cultures has, up to now, been a complex and less-than-objective process.
Its latest innovation is Rheyomix, "a multi-dimensional evaluation tool". This allows the development process to be streamlined, says Rea, and recipes to be precisely optimised.
This can cut costs and increase speed-to-market in the yogurt category, Danisco argues.
== Reducing downstream costs ==
But can other types of dairy ingredient help to reduce downstream costs?
Given that many of these ingredients are strong on nutrition and aim to 'add value', that might appear unlikely. "Milk as a raw material is not that inexpensive," says Clissmann at Glanbia. "But using milk protein concentrates and isolates may mean you don't have to include as many flavouring, stabilisers and so on when you're formulating a product."
Glanbia also has its Trucal source of milk minerals. "This includes not just calcium as a fortifying agent, but also magnesium and trace zinc and selenium. This can be cost-effective compared with other sources of minerals on the market."
Chr. Hansen is equally interested in milk as a source of calcium - and more. Guiraudou talks about the firm's Lactoyield enzyme, which can be used to convert low-value lactose into lactobionic acid. This can then be incorporated into certain cheeses. "Effectively, this means you can make more cheese out of the same amount of milk," he says.
But Lactoyield can also be used to generate calcium lactobionate, another source of calcium, Guiraudou adds. "This is an interesting source for supplementation, because it does not have the off-taste of other sources, and offers higher solubility and stability. We are looking at the bioavailability of this calcium, which is the key question. If all goes well, we will be able to promote our enzyme this way, too." The firm believes it will know one way or the other by early next year.
As Guiraudou makes clear, demonstrable routes to improved calcium availability and absorption, especially in children's products such as fromages frais, represent a major opportunity in the dairy sector.
Just as dairy-derived ingredients can provide real benefits for a wide range of foods, non-dairy ingredients can prove valuable to the dairy sector. But in some cases, it is the absence, rather than the presence, of additional ingredients which firms focus on.
Kerrygold, for instance, likes to claim that the softness of its milk fat - and hence the spreadability of its butter - is at least partly down to the dairy's use of summer, grass-fed milk. But sales and marketing director Sean Whitfield explains: "Our 'softer' claim is in comparison with our own previous product. Since then, the main thing that has changed is our process." He characterises this as a gentler cooling and crystallisation process.
"It adds cost," he says. "But some of the 'spreadable' products on the market are up to one-third vegetable oil."
Those 'butters' may be softer, but when it comes to dairy products - and ingredients - less can, sometimes, be more. FM
''KEY CONTACTS: Chr. Hansen 00 45 45 747474 Danisco 00 45 3266 2000 Friesland Campina DMV 00 31 413 372222 Glanbia 00 353 56777 2200 Kerrygold UK 01538 399111''