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Manufacturers are offering innovative solutions for achieving dairy-like taste and texture in dairy-free products.
Even as dairy products’ foothold in the market remains secure, dairy alternatives are slowly but surely taking up space in the grocery store-and in consumers’ minds. Ivan Gonzales, marketing director, dairy, Ingredion Inc. (Westchester, IL), cites the company’s own research which shows that consumers are drawn to dairy-free for two key reasons. First, he says, is “the healthy halo” some consumers attribute to dairy-free products. The second reason, he says, is demand from consumers who champion a dairy-free diet as more sustainable than an animal-based diet. Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager, Cargill (Minneapolis), points to recent Packaged Facts predictions that by 2021, the market for dairy-alternative beverages could account for as much as 40% of the total combined $28 billion market for dairy and dairy-alternative beverages.
But as the dairy-free category continues to grow, formulating challenges remain. Some plant sources, for example, come with astringent or bitter flavors. And, as Paige Ties, technical service manager, research and development, Cargill, tells Nutritional Outlook, depending on the production processes used, there can even be flavor differences within the same type of protein source.
Ties says that while taste is still king, texture challenges can derail the dairy-free formulation process. While a dairy-like taste may get a consumer in the door, texture can either make or break the non-dairy experience.
Ties says that milk fat is what typically provides dairy products their smooth mouthfeel, but a little more work is needed to achieve a similar texture with dairy alternatives. Says Stephen Cobbe, research and development director, Kerry Ingredients (Beloit, WI): “Nutritionally, non-dairy alternatives very often need greater amounts of added sugar to provide better mouthfeel and the necessary sweetness to mask sour, bitter, and off flavors.”
Ingredion’s Gonzales says that the right dairy-free solution depends on the desired texture attributes of the final product. “In yogurts, our new tapioca or rice starches and flours provide excellent mouthfeel and creaminess [and] a very clean and neutral taste.” For dairy-free cheeses, he adds, attributes like firmness and melting behavior are nearly as important as texture. Ingredion’s potato-based starches, such as Precisa 680, he says, “provide superior gelling, firmness, and melting attributes.” Ingredion’s Homecraft line of multifunctional rice flours, he continues, provides low- to nonfat products a creamy, dairy-like mouthfeel.
Cobbe points to Kerry’s Sherex range of clean-label texturants, which “encompass protein and hydrocolloid options that can deliver consistent aeration, viscosity, emulsion stability, and texture during pasteurization, heating/cooling, packaging, and throughout shelf life.” And Sharon Rokosh, technical business development director, proteins, Kerry Ingredients, says that the company’s ProDiem ingredient-a combination of pea, rice, and oats-is ideal for use in a variety of applications for which texture might be challenging.
In fact, plant protein is often the thorn in the side for formulators, says Ties. “[The formulating process] starts with choosing the right protein source for the intended application.”
Ties points to some specific challenges that beverage formulators, for instance, can run into when working with plant proteins, and explains how picking the right protein source can make a difference. Pea protein, Ties says, is a good choice when working with alternative-milk beverages. She explains that “the farther a beverage’s pH [value] is from a protein’s isoelectric point, the easier it is to keep the protein in suspension.” Luckily for pea protein, she says, most alternative-milk beverages have a neutral pH of 7, which is far above pea protein’s isoelectric point, which tends to range between a more acidic 4.5-5. This means that pea protein is well-suited to neutral beverage applications such as non-dairy milks.
In acidic beverage applications like smoothies, Ties says, “pH levels are much closer to the isoelectric point of pea protein, causing the protein to hydrolyze and precipitate out of solution.” But she presents a solution here as well: if the right protein-protecting ingredients are used in the beginning of the formulation process, the protein can achieve the desired properties. She says that Cargill’s pectins, which are sometimes used in combination with gellan gum or carrageenan, both help maintain mouthfeel and prevent sedimentation over a product’s shelf life.
As formulators work to improve the non-dairy experience, it’s never been easier for consumers to find replacements for traditional dairy-based products. With ingredients like nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, and more driving innovation in the dairy-alternative category, shoppers who want to avoid dairy will have no shortage of options.