A generation ago, consumers and food industry professionals alike shied away from real dairy ingredients, such as cheese, cream, and butter, for the likes of processed cheese food, non-dairy creamers, and oleo margarine. 

At the time, motivations included the broader functionality and shelf-stability of the ersatz products compared to real dairy. Other factors were their comparative cost advantages and the prevailing nutritional thinking at the time—since disproven—that whole dairy’s saturated fat was disproportionately, and perhaps uniquely, responsible for conditions such as obesity, hyperlipidemia, and diabetes.

The current era of exalting everything “real” is turning processors away from the artificial and highly processed ingredients that once were principal tools in food formulators’ kits. For dairy, this paradigm shift heralded a revival of the real cheese, cream, butter, and other ingredients once replaced by artificial alternatives.

The popularity of real dairy reflects a broader movement among today’s consumers that underscores the extent to which they’re “so much more interested in where food comes from, and how it’s produced, as compared to the consumers of years ago,” says Barbara O’Brien, president, Innovation Center for US Dairy. “While taste, convenience, and affordability still are mainstays influencing purchases, several other factors now come into play, including healthfulness, sustainability, an expanded definition of food safety, transparency, and social good.”

That’s a tall order for a soup or sauce, but it’s increasingly the standard by which shoppers judge their food choices. Sources, such as the 2015 International Food Information Council’s “Food and Health Survey” and research from Edelman and Innova Market Insights reveal that for 78% of consumers, food choice is tantamount to “a statement about who they are;” 70% take into account how the food they purchase is farmed or produced. Overall, 88% “have given thought to the ingredients in their food,” and 75% believe ingredients on food labels should be “recognizable.”

Yet even as they’re ticking all these boxes, consumers don’t want to give up a great food experience, nor do they want to settle for poorer taste. This is why real dairy is the right choice for right now.

“Dairy has a great story to tell,” says Greg Miller, PhD, chief science officer for the National Dairy Council.

“Milk, most cheeses, butter, yogurt, buttermilk, and even whey fractions typically are considered traditional foods with minimal processing,” placing them within consumers’ concepts of what real actually means. “Real dairy equals authentic taste, premium perception, and a clean label,” Miller emphasizes.

Tim Millson, CEO of LaLoo’s Goat Milk Ice Cream LLC, agrees. “The key factor for most of our consumers is maintaining a small ingredient list,” he says. The truth is, precious few cost-effective substitutes adequately replicate the texture, taste, and flavor of real dairy—especially the emerging and highly trendy goat’s milk—without introducing artificial flavors and colors, emulsifiers, sweeteners, or partially hydrogenated oils (GRAS status for which the FDA recently revoked).

As Millson insists, “Real dairy is always better than a long list of substitutes.” He even stressed the financial advantages of real dairy in the long run, noting that the primary ingredient in many dairy substitutes is water, and remarking: “Who likes paying a premium price of $4-5 per pint for something your city sells you for $.15 a gallon?”

Revisionist Thinking

Real dairy’s nutritional advantages also are buffing its healthy shine. As Smári Ásmundsson, founder of yogurt maker Smári Organics Inc., says, “Dairy is enjoying a renaissance, because healthier options higher in protein and lower in sugar are available now. And dairy is now considered among the ‘good’ fats.”

“Evolving science on saturated fat, in general, as well as emerging research on whole-milk dairy products, is helping people look differently at how higher fat foods, that also deliver beneficial nutrients and other attributes, can be part of an overall, nutritionally balanced diet,” says Greg Miller, PhD, chief science officer of the National Dairy Council.  Also, a possible link between reduced or neutral cardiovascular disease risk and whole milk and related ingredients looks “promising,” according to Miller.

Even better, butter now qualifies as a “healthy energy source,” notes Rachel Zemser, MS, CCS, a San Francisco-based food scientist, chef, and industry consultant and frequent contributor to Prepared Foods. “Exhibit A: Bulletproof Coffee, the branded beverage that mixes grass-fed butter with hipster coffee and a blend of coconut-derived, medium-chain triglycerides [MCTs].”

While claims that the drink enhances cognitive performance and weight loss may be debatable—Bulletproof inventor Dave Asprey refers to the product’s MCTs as Brain Octane Oil—its appeal amongst health-conscious consumers isn’t. Adds Zemser, “Butter is often touted as more premium, especially if it’s organic and comes from grass-fed cows.”

Also on-point are dairy proteins, as consumers increasingly lean toward these macronutrients for the purported contributions to improved body composition, muscle growth and repair, satiety, and healthy weight management. (It’s worth noting that milk remains American children’s number one food source of nine essential nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D, and potassium—three of the four that the newly released 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) list as lacking in US diets.)

Got Your Goat

Jesse Merill, co-founder and CEO of Irvine, Calif.-based cottage cheese maker Good Culture LLC, says, “Consumers are looking for nutrient-dense foods that over-deliver on protein and have a clean label. And clean, dairy-based products are nutrient-dense superfoods.”

LaLoo’s Millson certainly thinks they are. “Goat’s milk is the new superfood,” he avers, pointing to “benefits that are overwhelming in terms of nutrition.” It is higher in vitamins A and B, “as well as its carbon ‘hoofprint’,” another issue at the forefront for many of today’s consumers.

There are other advantages to goat’s milk for food and beverage processors. Lower in lactose and higher in lactic acid than cow’s milk, lactose-sensitive people find goat’s milk less troublesome to the tummy. Also, having smaller fat molecules, higher protein, and higher levels of calcium and potassium, goat’s milk is naturally homogenized, allowing it to lend a creamier consistency to some formulations.

Until recently, goat’s milk and products derived from it were a hard sell to the average American consumer. Western cultures typically did not prefer the “goaty” flavor (believed to be derived from the transfer of certain chemical compounds emitted by male goats kept near the milking does). In fact, Millson claims the association between goat’s-milk products and the twangy taste of goat cheese was once so strong, “everyone quit trying to prove that they tasted different and just started making cheese,” he says.

Today’s farmers know several methods of decreasing the flavors in question, from immediate refrigeration and better filtration/pasteurization methods, to the knowledge that better feed leads to better milk. These tricks allow companies to produce goat’s-milk ice creams and yogurts “free of goaty flavors,” Millson says, referring to it as the “good stuff in, good stuff out” principle.

However, if a twangy goat cheese flavor is no longer a hurdle to formulating with goat’s milk, other facets of the ingredient are. Millson concedes that goat’s milk’s limited availability makes working with it a challenge, occasionally leading to shortages that “prevent any potential new launch from meeting even minimum supply needs.” Its flavor profile also is delicate and more liable to change than the profile of cow’s milk, especially if it’s exposed to temperature and storage stress.

As an unsubsidized commodity, goat’s milk is more expensive. Adds Millson, “The refrigerated and frozen sections are the most expensive ‘real estate’ of any store, and transportation is equally expensive, making the already-high production costs of goat’s-milk products even higher.”

To counter those challenges, his company is sourcing more “high-quality goat’s milk from humane family farms,” located at sites nearer to the company’s co-packing facilities. “By adding strategic locations,” he adds, “we can provide a fresher option and larger range of products to try.” Reducing transportation costs and time to market ultimately allows the company to offer better prices to consumers.

Still, it will be a while before goat’s milk makes it into many applications beyond boutique ice cream, yogurt, butter, and cheeses, Millson notes. “Goat’s milk that could be transformed into shelf-stable snacks would be a great idea, without doubt, and offer a ton of future opportunity,” he says. “But the price prevents those types of products from launching, because the consumer demand for cheese is currently outstripping the availability, and the cheese margins are too high to ignore.”

Cheese, Please

If real goat cheese is flying off the shelves, it’s not alone. “Artisan cheeses are moving to the mainstream,” says Paul Ziemnisky, senior vice president of global innovation partnerships for Dairy Management Inc.

That move is happening fastest in foodservice. Menu transparency and discerning consumers are nudging R&D chefs not just toward artisan ingredients like goat cheese, but to natural (that is to say, made from fresh milk, salt, natural cheese cultures, enzymes, and possibly flavorings) and clean label cheeses, too.

“Americans are enjoying more cheese than ever before,” Ziemnisky points out—about 34lb per person per year—“because it enhances so many foods.” Its success at foodservice cuts across all eating occasions and restaurant types, with morning items, like breakfast sandwiches, up 4.1% from August 2015 through the year prior (according to the NPD Group’s CREST database), and servings of Mexican foods up 2.9%.

New products that feature cheese as the hero keep emerging, too. With QSRs such as Yum! Brands Inc.’s franchises spotlighting increased use of real dairy ingredients and less mainstream cheeses. Examples abound, such as the company’s Taco Bell brand Quesalupa—with sour cream, pepper Jack cheese baked right into the shell and more cheese on top. In fact, that particular product contains five times the dairy of a normal Taco Bell taco and became the chain’s biggest product launch ever.

The company’s leading pizza outlet, Pizza Hut (already a major cheese-centered concern), also is pulling out all stops in its use of dairy. Its Triple Cheese Covered Stuffed Crust Pizza uses five different types of cheese, amounting to nearly 1lb of cheese per pie.

While the trend toward using Asiago cheese in popular, cheesy products kicked off a number of years ago, its use is rising again—as is the use of other cheeses that are less mainstream than Cheddar and Jack.

The chain calls out the Asiago, as well as an aged Parmesan, in its Triple Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza. DMI experts have made note of the same trend in sandwiches and burgers, singling out growth in Asiago, Gouda, and Havarti.

Another up-marketed, cheesy Pizza Hut offering is its Twisted Crust Pizza. The chain makes it not with a traditional marinara, but with cheese sauce. It also recently launched a Stuffed Garlic Knots pizza, a large pie surrounded with 16 hand-rolled, cheese-stuffed garlic knots, adding up to 30% more cheese than in its regular Hand-Tossed Pizza offering.

Wendy’s International Inc. launched Bacon Fondue Fries, a side dish that comes with a warm sauce of Swiss Gruyère cheese. Brie and Gouda cheeses accompany Cheddar cheese in Starbucks’ Corp.’s Cheese & Fruit Bistro Box, and new fast-casual chain, The Melt Co., makes its Bacon Florentine Macaroni and Cheese with creamy aged Cheddar, fontina, and Jack cheeses.

Artisanal Challenges

Using an artisanal, natural cheese in a restaurant item is one thing; weaving such a unique dairy ingredient—or others, such as grass-fed butter or the aforementioned goat’s milk—into a formulation for a frozen dinner or dry soup mix is another. Delicate, real dairy ingredients can “go through the ringer” in a larger food production process.

“All processes can affect dairy in ways that could make the final product undesirable to consumers,” says Zemser. “Cheeses like blue, brie, and cottage don’t freeze well, unless made into a sauce first, for example. And the heat involved in retorting dairy ingredients can both aggregate proteins—causing unappetizing clumps—and flash off important volatile aromas.”

“Some foods can transition easily from a chef’s menu to industry,” says Bill Graves, senior vice president of product research for the National Dairy Council, citing smoothies as an example.

The transition is even more challenging with “certain multi-textured foods,” Graves notes. “Creating a multi-textured food is a dream for many food companies but requires overcoming food-safety and textural hurdles. Nonetheless, dairy provides a multitude of ingredients that go well with different carriers, like taco shells and empanadas, to create unique concepts that can be made to scale, if challenges are appropriately addressed.”

Fresh Powder

Due to the growth of artisanal cheeses and consumer interest in global market products, the variety of cheeses available has erupted. Profiles of these flavors
include international varieties using different cheese-making processes and sources of milk, in addition to combinations using fresh herbs and honey, as well as alcohol. A sample of cheese flavors available include aged Cheddar, feta, manchego, mozzarella, Oaxaca, ricotta, and toasted Parmesan.

To meet the needs for merging true dairy with reliability, consistency, and performance, ingredient makers aggressively have expanded their portfolios of natural dairy flavors with a palette of different versions of cheese, butter, milk, and sour cream flavors.

Developers can deploy flavors as specific as “rich crema,” “freshly whipped butter,” or “evaporated milk.” When made with real dairy ingredients, these items bridge the process-tolerance and shelflife gap that separates fresh-from-the-farm dairy and artificial substitutes made more of flavors and fillers than actual milk, cheese, or butter.

Some dairy ingredient specialists are able to offer literally hundreds of flavors, ranging from fresh to aged cheese flavors; region-specific flavors that include European and Latin American cheeses; cultured milk and cream flavors; and a full spectrum of sheep (feta), goat (chèvre), and cow’s milk cheese flavors. Soft-ripened cheese flavors as identifiable as Brie or Camembert, or regional specialty cheeses that include such unique examples as adobera, a ejo, Cotija, madurado, manchego, nacho, Oaxaca, or panela are on hand for precise customization of dairy formulations that target regional and ethnic culinary attributes.

For example, certain of the blue cheeses can be acquired as naturally derived concentrated flavors in varieties such as Danish, Gorgonzola, Roquefort, and Stilton. Strengths from mild to strong, as well as carrying flavor notes that run from creamy, earthy, and fruity to mushroom-y, musty, and pungent.

Organic and cultured sources increasingly have been added to these dairy toolboxes, allowing product creators an expansive range in creating everything, from fillings and layers for main dishes and side dishes to dressings, dips, and sauces—or for enhancing soups and seasonings or flavors in crackers, chips, and other baked snacks.

Functional, real-dairy powders present challenges of their own. Oxidation and shelflife concerns can plague dried ingredients made with high-butterfat dairy, for instance. And cheese powders formulated with naturally sourced colors can suffer from the development of off-flavors and color changes—especially over the course of long storage or when exposed to high-heat processes, like baking and retort.

Such products can be more expensive, too. That said, spray-dried dairy powders still offer advantages vis-à-vis shelf stability. They don’t need tempering in formulations, and they have wider application suitability than fresh dairy.

Chef Zemser, for one, is bullish on the potential of freeze-drying for bringing real dairy ingredients a broader range of applications. “Snacks are the new dairy carriers on the market,” she says. “But how does one get yogurt, whey protein, or other dairy ingredients into shelf-stable, dry snacks like chips? [The answer is] freeze-drying technology, which opens the door to having shelf-stable, dairy-based snacks.”

The trick to making the process work, Zemser explains, “is to ensure there are enough carbohydrate and protein solids in the mix to allow the freeze-dried dairy melt portion to dissolve easily during rehydration, but not turn to dust in the package.” That makes higher protein dairy inputs, like Greek-style yogurt, preferable to “watery mainstream versions,” she says. Even ice cream and yogurt “lend themselves very well to freeze-drying.”

Although extremely high levels of fat can compromise dairy’s fitness for the process—heavy cream becomes greasy when freeze-dried, for example—once the developer has the precise carbohydrate:fat:protein ratio determined, the “opportunities are endless,” according to Zemser. She’s had success freeze-drying fruity yogurt-based drops for kids and adults—and even cottage cheese. “It just freeze-dries so well,” she enthuses. “There’s a lot of untapped potential.”

Hidden Functionality

Speaking of untapped potential, National Dairy Council’s Graves encourages product developers not to overlook the utility of “behind-the-scenes” dairy ingredients, like dairy proteins, in clean label applications. While a milk protein concentrate might not look as real on an ingredient label as milk, such concentrates, isolates, and hydrolysates are real dairy and can help formulators eliminate ingredients that are not.

Milk protein concentrates (MPCs), for example, can bind water in sauces, soups, dips and processed meats, replacing modified starches and hydrocolloids, such as xanthan and locust bean gum or carrageenan, typically used as water binders.

Whey protein concentrates (WPCs) can replace hydrocolloids and chemical emulsifiers in acidic systems like salad dressings, as well as in products subjected to heat. WPCs and MPCs—particularly those manufactured to lower protein levels—supply the lactose necessary for browning and can thus offset the need for caramel color. Mineral-rich permeate—the liquid remaining after the ultrafiltration of whey or milk—can substitute for salt in baked products, seasonings, sauces and soups.

Zemser cautions that whey protein isolates (WPIs) with protein contents above 95% can be problematic when used in high rates in bars, as they tend to “dry out the bar and make it crumbly.”

Because they’re popular with consumers, manufacturers may want to turn to hydrolyzed versions that allow them to pack in the protein without compromising product texture. However, formulators should note hydrolysates do have some drawbacks. For example, they taste “grassy,” according to Zemser.

Other issues involved in formulating with dairy proteins include separation and settling, which can unsettle consumers who are not accustomed to seeing sediment at the bottom of their beverage. However, a strategic blend of gums and hydrocolloids can help suspend protein particulates. Or, suggests Zemser, manufacturers could just let things settle and call the effect “natural.”

Graves adds, “All dairy protein products have pH and temperature limits—especially whey proteins. But research has been ongoing to widen those limits.” Research also is improving dairy proteins more generally, with today’s generation of whey and milk products proving to be both functionally and nutritionally superior to those of earlier generations. Milk and whey fractionation and filtration can allow for the use of some proteins to improve emulsification in formulas. Says Graves, “Acid whey easily could be a sports beverage in its own right.”

None of which surprises Zemser. Whether with regard to processing, functionality, or application versatility, she says, “Food scientists have done a good job already of incorporating real dairy into foods and beverages. It’s too soon for dairy to make a ‘comeback’—because it never really left the scene.”


Originally appeared in the June, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Make it with Dairy.

Raw Milk

Most raw products, like nuts, seeds, and HPP juices, have built-in safety measures. The raw dairy industry, however, has not attempted to take advantage of such measures and prides itself on good handling practices (or feeding cows only the best green grass available) to ensure product safety.

Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data confirm outbreaks linked to raw milk are more common in states where raw milk is legal. Common pathogens such as Listeria, E. coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter can be found in raw milk and could pose severe health risks and even death—especially when consumed by the elderly, immunocompromised, or young children. The number of outbreaks in the US caused by non-pasteurized (raw) milk increased from 30 in 2007-2009 to 51 in 2010-2012. Most of the outbreaks (77%) were caused by Campylobacter, and most cases (81%) occurred from consumption of non-pasteurized milk purchased from states where its sale was legal.

Raw-milk cheese, however, is a different story. Risks from properly handled, properly manufactured raw-milk cheeses have proven to be minimal. To be legal in the US, a cheese must be properly aged for at least 60 days. Properly aging cheeses restricts the environment for the growth of harmful bacteria through the production of lactic acid and promotes the flourishing of competing, beneficial bacteria. The CDC has recorded, on average, only a few incidents of illness per year traceable to raw-milk cheeses across the last couple of decades, and many of those cases involved unaged cheeses, such as Mexican queso fresco.