This article is the first of what will be a two-part series looking at the current gaps in the overall value proposition between animal and plant-based protein sources. I will be using as an example the dairy milk industry and the newer, competing plant-based “mylk” (a term used by Dr. Padayachee, who I will mention later on in the article, to describe “milk that has been made from things such as nuts, grains, or beans rather than coming from cows, sheep or goats”) category. In terms of product development and innovation, I suggest a flexitarian approach. This would help manufacturers and consumers transition into a world of new opportunities with significant nutritional and multifunctional benefits.
In this first part of the series, I want to examine the areas where animal milk products, specifically cow’s milk, are lacking and how we, from a food science perspective, can develop these products into more nutritionally functional foods and beverages for the wider consumer so as to better compete nutritionally with the seemingly more popular plant-based alternatives. Functional and nutritional fibres from plant-based ingredients can be of much interest to the dairy industry.
The plant-based milk industry has grown enormously throughout the past few years and has aimed to replace traditional milk brands with newer, plant-based versions. I am sure we are all familiar, even if we are not consumers, of coconut, pea, soya, rice, oat or almond milk.
The Dairy Industry: Got (Functional) Milk?
Animal milk consumption has been in decline for many years while consumption of non-dairy alternatives has been on the rise. A 2017 study by McCarthy et al. found that consumers who chose to purchase only non-dairy alternatives were not necessarily vegetarian or vegan, but sought plant-based beverages for various reasons. Included was their desire to limit animal-based foods due to health concerns, animal mistreatment, and the belief that plant-based beverages were more environmentally friendly than dairy milk. Some vegetarian consumers continued to consume animal milk because they believed so much in its nutritional value.
Dairy products, in general, can provide us with numerous benefits from a nutrition standpoint. Dairy milk is considered a nutrient-dense food which ensures that we do not become deficient in necessary vitamins or minerals. It also contains easily digestible proteins with balanced amino acid profiles.
It is an industry that has experienced a lot of negative press over the past few years mostly due to two main claims:
- The effects of producing dairy products on a mass scale is said to be harmful and damaging to animals and the environment.
- From a nutrition perspective, digesting dairy is said to do more harm than good to our bodies and can often lead to acne and bloating in some consumers.
This article is not to debate the positive or negative effects of dairy products, rather to highlight the importance of the nutritional benefits dairy provides us with and to explore the gaps so that we can work towards creating an improved beverage with increased benefits for the consumer.
The Rise in Functional Beverages
Functional foods and beverages are those which include an additional function by adding new ingredients or more of existing ingredients. I am sure we are all very familiar with seeing terms like “added vitamins and minerals” or “fortified with calcium” on packaging.
Functional foods and beverages are not a brand new concept, but the market is expanding rapidly and consumers are understanding the benefits behind making a product more ‘functional’. Benefits such as lowering cholesterol, boosting energy, slowing age, or decreasing stress and fatigue.
Functional beverages are very much in line with the convenience trend that has swept the food industry off its feet in recent years. They aim to pack more nutritional benefits into one product which can often be a cost and time-saving benefit for consumers. For example, we are increasingly looking for products where carbohydrates or fats are replaced or enhanced with multifunctional fibres. This trend is driving food manufacturers to change formulations in a cost-effective way, while trying to maintain mouthfeel, texture and taste.
Fibre as a Multifunctional Ingredient
We already know that functional ingredients can be beneficial to our daily diets, so why isn’t every company making the most of this and adding extra ingredients to all of their products?
Let’s focus on fibre as an example. Depending on the processing steps and the type of product category, an R&D team would first have to assess and rank the overall functionality of different fibres against a set of clearly defined criteria. They tend to absorb larger amounts of water so by simply adding them to the recipe, you may end up with a very different product.
The ingredients market offers a wide range of multifunctional fibres that fulfil different aspects of product development and formulation. Here is a non-exhaustive list to give you some examples: tapioca, corn, oat, pea, rice, chicory, barley, wheat, potato, carrot, lactose, inulin, resistant starch or dextrins, apple, cellulose, sugar beet, indigestible dextrin, polydextrose, buckwheat, polydextrose or psyllium.
Fibres also include gums such as acacia, guar, locust bean gum, xanthan, konjac, pectin, and carboxymethyl cellulose. Depending on their origin and the different processing steps involved, some of those have extraordinary properties such as gelling, fat mimetic or water-binding capacity that will positively impact stability, texture and nutrition.
In addition, note that when adding extra ingredients like fibre to a recipe, the nutritional label must be changed too. Three aspects are of particular importance: the ingredients list, nutritional claims and health claims.
It wouldn’t make sense to just add a multifunctional fibre layer into every food product for the sake of it. An in-depth analysis from a food science perspective is needed in order to decide if a product with added fibre will actually be beneficial to those who consume it. Some thoughts to take into account are:
- Will the added quantity be enough to be beneficial?
- Is it something that is truly necessary or are you looking for a new marketing tactic?
- Is the added ingredient typically lacking in a standard diet and will consumers consider it important enough to pay the price increase for?
In the case of fibre, most consumers are generally deficient in their fibre intake. The daily recommended intake is about 25 to 38g (depending on factors such as age , gender and caloric intake), whereas most people only consume about 10 to 15g per day. Fibre is also a highly topical nutrient and one that most consumers are aware of, so in this case, added fibre is likely something that consumers would spend money on.
If you’re thinking of using fibre in any of your products, Bia-Biz have a fantastic free toolkit available to download called the “fibre as a functional ingredient checklist”.
Can we add multifunctional fibre to cow’s milk?
Milk has been, and still is in many households, especially in my country of Ireland, a daily consumption product. However, it is one that contains zero fibre.
In a case like this, where fibre is a commonly deficient nutrient and milk is a commonly consumed product, what would happen if we could fortify milk with nutritional and multifunctional fibre to target specific health benefits and ultimately consumer segments?
Maybe we could bridge the benefit gap between animal and plant-based milks. I am aware of the many consumers who drink both because of the high, but differing nutritional benefits of each. For those consumers, it could be a new alternative that provides all the nutritious benefits of cow milk with the added functional benefits of plant-based alternatives. For the manufacturers, it opens new positioning and reinforces differentiation or USP’s through natural and adequate ingredient superiority with “source of” or “high in” protein and/or fibre claims.
Vanga and Raghavan (2018) compiled the nutritional breakdown of different commercial plant-based alternative milks against bovine milk. Below is a graphic representation of the results where we can clearly see some differences when comparing profiles of 240ml (equivalent to 1 glass). Taking those into account, savvy technologists and food scientists will be able to formulate consumer-centric products with personalised nutritional and functional profiles and targeted health benefits.
Graph 1: Macronutrient (g/240ml) comparison
A similar exercise can be carried out for amino acid profiles to enhance the overall nutritional value of a food product or beverage. With different innate profiles, it is interesting to note that nutritional value, texture, aroma and flavour can be subtly adjusted by optimising formulation i.e. different percentages for each of the nuts, grains and beans.
Graph 2: Energy (kcal per 240ml) Comparison
The information in the graphs above allows us to be able to look objectively at both cow’s milk and plant-based mylks to see not only where they are beneficial, but also in which area each one may be deficient. This can be addressed through fortification or formulating with another ingredient that has a complementary nutritional profile and can bring new sensorial experiences. From that, we could use this understanding to build a more functional “in-between” product that could target specific segments (i.e. personalised nutrition) and customer profile who want the best of both worlds.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to reformulating with fibres.
From Chart 2 above, we can see that cow’s milk and plant-based mylks contain little or no fibre, this is a unique opportunity for new product category, consumption occasion and even product formats. Depending on what the end product goal is, R&D teams need to be aware of the different multifunctional fibre sources and their applications, in addition to adjusting processing parameters to suit the reformulated recipe. Functional ingredients take up a huge space in today’s food and beverage industry. I firmly believe that R&D within traditional and disruptive companies within the industry is key to achieving growth and sales through strong innovation and product design / development strategies.
It is a good reminder to ourselves as consumers and/or food producers to take a whole view of nutrition and not just limit our analysis of foods to specific ingredients (Kongerslev et al. 2017). The nutritional relationship between our diet and our health has traditionally focused on individual macronutrients and micronutrients separately. The danger with this reductionist approach, however, is that it often links a specific nutrient to a particular health effect, which may lead to discrepancies between a food’s predicted health effect on the basis of its nutrient content and its actual health effect when consumed as a whole food.
Through iNewtrition, I help food and beverage teams, companies and strategists alike to develop and nourish a culture of Innovation by Design: merging “clean-science” principles, tech and ingenuity to adjust the trajectory of integrative health & wellness through nutrition. In this article, we discussed the advantages of considering all aspects of milks and mylks during innovation and renovation projects. We can certainly extend this approach to the meat, confectionary or baked goods sectors using multifunctional fibres carefully selected to offer multiple consumer-centric options in terms of nutrition, textures and/or positioning, differentiation perspectives.
If this sounds like something you are working on and would like extra guidance or support with, get in touch via email at [email protected] or book a consultation with me directly at a time that suits you.
Vanga, S.K. and Raghavan, V. “How well do plant-based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk?” 2018. Journal of Food Science & Technology 55(1):10–20.
McCarthy, K. S., Parker, M., Ameerally, A. S., Drake, L. and Drake M.A. 2017 “Drivers of choice for fluid milk versus plant-based alternatives: what are consumer perceptions of fluid milk?” Journal of Dairy Science 100:6125–6138.
Kongerslev Thorning, T., Bertram, H.C., Bonjour, J-P, de Groot, L. Dupont, D., Feeney, E., Ipsen, R., Lecerf, J.M., Mackie, A., McKinley, M.C., Michalski, M-C., Rémond, D., Risérus, U., Soedamah-Muthu, S., Tholstrup, T., Weaver, C., Astrup, A., Givens, I. 2017 “Whole dairy matrix or single nutrients in assessment of health effects: current evidence and knowledge gaps”. Am J Clin Nutr 105:1033–45.