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When milk is not an option

Source:Ringier Food     Date:2018-03-27
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FROM soups and cheese, to lattés and spreads, to ice cream and good old-fashioned fresh milk, dairy products have worked their way into just about every possible aspect conceivable in the food and beverage industry. Whether its presence is obvious or not, it is generally acknowledged that the creamy mouthfeel that dairy provides to products greatly adds to taste and sensations. Moreover, the health benefits of dairy, especially in terms of calcium, vitamin D and bone health, have been well-researched and documented in scientific circles[i]. Unfortunately, increasing research has also revealed that a large segment of the population today, up to 75%, is intolerant to lactose, the primary carbohydrate present in dairy, especially in Africa, Asia and South America[ii],[iii]. For these consumers, the only way to enjoy the benefits of dairy products without facing the health consequences is to turn to dairy alternatives – and given the large number of consumers this comprises, this is clearly an area with a great deal of potential.

The science behind dairy alternatives

Lactose intolerance brings with it some very uncomfortable side consequences if the person in question insists on consuming dairy – from nausea to diarrhoea to various other digestive discomforts, the results simply will not be pretty. This is because this segment of the population has gradually lost the digestive enzyme lactase after infancy, which targets lactose, and is normally present in infants to process the consumption of breast milk. As a matter of fact, the terminology with regard to this area is seeing something of a evolution: ‘Lactose intolerance’, or a deficiency of lactase, is becoming so common as to be regarded as normal, whereas those with fully functioning lactase into adulthood can be called ‘lactase persistent’. This development could see the dairy alternative market expand well beyond what we see at present.

Given all this, the key question to ask with regard to health is: How essential is the consumption of dairy for a diet to be healthy and balanced? Interestingly enough, recent research has shown that dairy may not be as necessary as traditionally perceived.

The main health benefits that dairy products bring to a diet are those of calcium, proteins and Vitamin D, and the interactions between these are important for healthy bone mass and bone health, which help with the prevention of osteoporosis and bone fractures[iv]. This is also one of dairy products’ main marketing foci, especially for fresh milk. However, recent studies have also linked dairy products to other health risks, including cardiovascular risks due to high saturated fat content, as well as ovarian and prostate cancers[v]. As a result of these as well as lactose intolerance, much as milk and other dairy products may be a convenient and tasty source of the aforementioned nutrients, these recent findings have cast doubt upon whether or not it is safe to depend on these as a safe source. This is where dairy alternatives can come in.

The number of alternatives to dairy has expanded to meet different taste and texture requirements

The number of alternatives to dairy has expanded to meet different taste and texture requirements

So, what options are available?

There are numerous options in terms of dairy replacements, and the majority of them are plant-based, with a focus on taste and texture. For non-liquid items, examples like using guacamole to replace sour cream, or sorbet to replace ice cream, or even tofu to replace cheese, are commonplace and very much depends on the taste profile of the consumer and/or chef. One of the current biggest markets for dairy alternatives though, lies in that of the liquid and/or powder sector aiming to replace the consumption of milk, with some of the major categories as follows[vi]:

  1. Cereal based: Oat milk, Rice milk, Corn milk, Spelt milk
  2. Legume based: Soy milk, Peanut milk, Lupin milk, Cowpea milk
  3. Nut based: Almond milk, Coconut milk, Hazelnut milk, Pistachio milk, Walnut milk
  4. Seed based: Sesame milk, Flax milk, Hemp milk, Sunflower milk
  5. Pseudo-cereal based: Quinoa milk, Teff milk, Amaranth milk

Soy milk is one of the most popular options amongst the above, and was also the first plant-based option to emerge aiming to provide nutrients to populations where dairy was scarce, or lactose intolerance was prevalent6. Its primary active ingredient, isoflavone, has well-documented cancer, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis protective effects[vii]. Due to its popularity, with a wide variety of brands such as Silk and Vitasoy placing emphasis on it, much effort has been put into developing technologies targeting the processing of soy milk, especially when it comes to the removal of its characteristic beany flavour to make it resemble milk as closely as possible, though this has yet to be accomplished perfectly.

Through the years, some of the more successful soy milk processing  methods include vacuum treatment of the beans at high temperature to remove volatile compounds; the Illinois pre-blanching system where beans are blanched to deactivate lipoxygenase, the enzyme responsible for acting on the fatty acids in the soy milk and causing the beany flavour; and the Cornell hot grinding method which opts to grind beans at 80 °C to also target lipoxygenase inactivation. More recently, due to concerns that high temperature treatments would affect soy protein solubility, a non-thermal method developed using pulsed electrical field (PEF) processing has also been subject to research in order to find the most optimal PEF intensity by which to process the beans[viii].

Another popular dairy alternative is oat milk, due to its potential high nutrition and therapeutic properties. With an admirable nutrient profile comprising various dietary fibres, proteins, phytochemicals and especially the touted nutraceutical component β-glucan, oat milk has rapidly risen to the high ranks amongst dairy alternatives in recent year, with common household brands like Nestlé and Magnolia also hopping onto its bandwagon.

Dairy alternative formulations found in the market

At a glance, the most commonly found vehicle of selling dairy alternatives is as either powders or direct-to-drink liquid beverages in stores. Even within these, there are several different formulations available in the market, the most common being:

  1. Plain sweetened
  2. Plain unsweetened
  3. Flavoured sweetened
  4. Flavored unsweetened

Of these formulations, the plain unsweetened segment is expected to grow the most and the most rapidly, at a CAGR of over 15% from now till 2024, hence is likely to account for a major portion of the dairy alternative industry[ix]. The process of production for the plain unsweetened segment is by theory the most straightforward, unless sugar or other obvious additives needs to be added to any part of the processing.

Interestingly enough, for dairy alternative beverages, plain formulations are more popular amongst consumers as compared to the flavoured ones[x]. However, given that most flavoured formulations today veer towards flavours like chocolate, coffee, matcha, vanilla or other types of flavourings that need to be achieved synthetically, this is possibly due to growing health consciousness in consumers and a perception that the added flavourings detract from the health profile of the product. It is also possible that these flavourings are unable to fully match with the original flavour of the dairy alternative, such as a possible clash with the beany flavour of soy milk.

For the food segment though, the applications of dairy alternatives to various food formulations has exceptionally high potential in powder form. As an example, many options in the renowned Campbell’s instant soup range, especially the much-loved Cream of Mushroom Soup[xi], contains dehydrated cream from a dairy source, but also soy protein concentrate – imagine the options available if the dairy-based cream could be replaced by a dairy alternative like soy as well. Indeed, beyond the powdered soups section, dairy alternatives could also find footing by replacing the dairy components in other food items such as tinned soups, thick sauces, thick broths, non-dairy yoghurts and ice creams, and ‘cream’ fillings for sandwich biscuits.

The challenges ahead

Despite the many options that the dairy alternative industry has provided, especially to those with lactose intolerance, there still exist quite a number of issues to be addressed before it can truly come into its own.

One of the greatest issues is that of taste and consistency: Whether it be soy milk, oat milk or even almond milk, these still differ from regular milk when it comes to the creamy mouthfeel or even the aftertaste, hence have not been able to totally replace it. There is also the issue of nutrition, where the consumption of many of the dairy alternatives alone cannot yet provide all the benefits that dairy milk can: Almond milk has low protein, oat milk has high sugar, rice milk has both of the above, and coconut milk is high in saturated fats[xii]. Soy milk, which has most of the necessary nutrients, is not suitable for those with soy allergies, and this is common in infants and children[xiii].  Hemp milk does not pose any of the above risks – but then faces the issue of being both expensive and rare.

All in all, the dairy alternatives industry is one with a great deal of potential, but as of right now, more research and improvements need to be completed before it can fully take over the dairy reign.

Image provided by the writer

[i] Rozenberg, S. et. al. 2016.  Effects of Dairy Products Consumption on Health: Benefits and BeliefsA Commentary from the Belgian Bone Club and the European Society for Clinical and Economic Aspects of Osteoporosis, Osteoarthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases. Calcif Tissue Int.; 98: pp1–17. doi:  10.1007/s00223-015-0062-x

[ii] https://www.pcrm.org/health/diets/vegdiets/what-is-lactose-intolerance

[iii] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/is-dairy-bad-or-good#section2

[iv] Dairy products, yogurts, and bone health. 2014. Am J Clin Nutr.1256S-62S. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.073056

[v] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/calcium-full-story/

[vi] Sethi.S., et. al. 2016. Plant-based milk alternatives an emerging segment of functional beverages: a review. J Food Sci Technol. 53(9): 3408–3423. doi:  10.1007/s13197-016-2328-3

[vii] Omoni, A.O. et.al. 2005. Soybean foods and their benefits: potential mechanisms of action. Nutr Rev. 63(8):272-83.

[viii] http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

[ix] https://globenewswire.com/news-release/2016/08/23/866120/0/en/Dairy-Alternatives-Market-To-Reach-35-06-Billion-By-2024-Grand-View-Research-Inc.html

[x] https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/dairy-alternatives-market---global-industry-insights-by-2024-tmr-620226943.html

[xi] https://www.campbellsfoodservice.com/product/campbells-classic-cream-of-mushroom/

[xii] https://inhabitat.com/inhabitots/a-guide-to-the-pros-cons-of-6-popular-cows-milk-alternatives/

[xiii] https://www.foodallergy.org/common-allergens/soy


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