Milk Matters: Dairy Protein versus Plant Protein

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 20, No. 9
Volume 20
Issue 9

Making the case for dairy proteins in a plant-protein era.

Photo © Edited by Quinn Williams

Is milk by any other name really milk? Not if the 32 lawmakers who signed a letter to FDA requesting that the agency ban the term “milk” from the labels of non-dairy “milks.” In a missive dated December 16, 2016, the House members argued that dairy milk is uniquely nutritious, and that by assuming the name “milk,” less-nutritious nondairy alternatives mislead consumers.

Whether you buy their argument or not-and FDA, for its part, has yet to take sides-the mere fact that these busy politicians are making it underscores the influence of the dairy industry and the competition it faces from nondairy products. That competition extends beyond the milk case to the protein category, where nondairy plant-sourced options ranging from pea to hemp are chipping away at the primacy dairy protein has long enjoyed.

The dairy industry isn’t taking the challenges lying down, however. After all, it still has a compelling story to tell. Says Kate Sager, marketing manager-America, Ingredia, Inc. (Wapakoneta, OH), “Dairy proteins have been around for a very long time and are industry standards. We do believe that even with the noise that plant proteins are making, animal proteins-and dairy specifically-will continue to dominate the marketplace into the future.”


Dynamic Market

The protein marketplace is a crucible of dynamism, regardless of who is dominant. Citing data from the International Food Information Council Foundation’s (IFIC) 2016 Food & Health Survey, Kara McDonald, vice president of global marketing communications, U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC; Arlington, VA), notes that 64% of U.S. adults proactively tried consuming more protein in 2016.1

Looking specifically at dairy-derived whey, BCC Research forecasts the global market to hit $13.5 billion in 2020, compared with $9.2 billion in 2015, representing a compound annual growth rate of 6.5% for the period.2 Notes Pernille Dorthea Frederiksen, health concept developer, Arla Foods Ingredients (Viby, Denmark), “This is testament to the strength of whey as a protein proposition.”

As with most trends, the passion for protein is evolving. McDonald notes, “Consumers are ‘siloing’ protein’s benefits for more personalized nutrition.” Mainstream audiences are also “more knowledgeable than ever” about its health benefits and are “looking for convenient high-protein products to help them manage their weight,” she states; meanwhile, more active fans “are looking for sports nutrition beverages to complement their daily workouts.”

Regardless of what consumers are looking for, Sarah Staley, vice president of performance nutrition, FrieslandCampina Ingredients North America, Inc. (Paramus, NJ), cites a Mintel report3 when she states, “We can see that it remains the most-searched-for term in the United States when seeking healthy products.”


Building Blocks

Consumer interest in protein remains strong for good reason. Protein is a critical source of dietary energy, supplying the same 4 kcal/gram that carbohydrate does. But, protein also supplies something else: amino acids, the building blocks of individual proteins and the body’s tissues. “Muscle, skin, bones, organs and the brain, as well as hormones and other components involved in how our bodies work,” notes Angela Rowan, general manager nutrition, Fonterra Co-operative Group Limited (Palmerston North, New Zealand).

Nutrition-savvy shoppers-and, increasingly, everyone else-have grown wise to this. Notes Rowan, “Most consumers know that protein is an important nutrient that supports muscle health and strong bones, and some even recognize that it can help keep you feel fuller longer.” But what they may not know, she says, is “how much they should be eating, when throughout the day they should be eating more protein or which are the best dietary sources.”


New Protein on the Shelf

And that’s where the flood of plant proteins on the market complicates things. Observes McDonald, “Plant sources seem to get a lot of attention in the media, partially because of the ‘newness’ element.” And as with plant-based “milks” striving to measure up to cow’s milk-which they cannot do without heavy fortification-“protein alternatives are also striving to be like dairy,” she notes.

Such “imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery,” McDonald says, but companies that are eager to promote plant-based protein “may rely on consumers’ lack of understanding of the complex differences in amino acid makeup and nutritional density that set dairy apart” to hold onto that newfound attention, she contends.

Then again, it would be unfair to ascribe consumers’ interest in plant-based proteins entirely to misunderstanding. Concern for animal rights, support for sustainable sourcing, unease about potential antibiotic residues in milk, and a growing awareness of dairy allergies all stoke plant protein’s popularity, notes Staley. “We also see that consumers have the perception that plant proteins may be more natural and perhaps ‘better for you’ than proteins from other sources,” she says. Regardless of whether or not that’s the case, what is true is that “consumers want to make better choices, and there’s widespread understanding that protein is good for them,” says Staley.


Superior Nutrition

In such a pro-protein environment, dairy has every reason to thrive, even with the stiff competition that plant products mount. As Frederiksen says, such competition is “to be expected, and it’s been good for the overall profile of protein as a nutrient.”

It’s as a nutrient, in fact, that dairy proteins most markedly stands out. “High-quality protein,” McDonald says, “is dairy’s strength.” While all proteins comprise amino acids, dairy contains all the essential amino acids (EAAs) that our bodies need for growth and recovery. What’s more, dairy’s amino acids are “of high bioavailability,” Rowan says, “so they’re readily digested and absorbed to be used.”

Dairy protein also outperforms as a source of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine. BCAAs, and leucine in particular, play “an important role in stimulating muscle growth,” Rowan continues. This helps explain why dairy protein is a sports-nutrition must-but Rowan points out that one does not to be training for an athletic event to benefit: “As our muscles are continuously turning over, consuming rich sources of these amino acids can be a valuable strategy for all ages and lifestyle, from athletes and body builders to the healthy aging and those looking to maintain muscle mass for optimal wellbeing.”

No wonder a recent study in the British Journal of Nutrition comparing the digestible indispensable amino acid scores (DIAASs) of whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, milk protein concentrate, skimmed milk powder, pea protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, soy flour, and whole-grain wheat ranked all dairy proteins “excellent/high” in quality for people ages six months and older, soy isolate and flour as “good,” and pea and wheat significantly lower.4 The lesson: “You’d simply have to consume a lot more plant protein to get the same nutrition you’d get from non-plant sources such as dairy,” Staley says.

Smart Ingredients

New processing technologies are letting suppliers enhance dairy proteins’ nutritional profile even further, with micellar casein concentrate (MCC) a prime example of what the innovations can achieve. Staley’s company uses a gentle cold-process filtration to produce a micellar casein ingredient that “retains a native-state micellar structure similar to fresh milk,” she explains. “This unique ingredient is proven to be the slowest-releasing protein source, resulting in a positive amino acid net balance and, thus, improved muscle recovery.”

Indeed, as a recovery aid, slow-digesting micellar casein “sits apart from all other dairy and plant proteins,” Sager adds. Because it bathes post-exertion muscles in a prolonged supply of amino acids for growth and repair, she says, athletes who use it “are ready for their next training session.” Even better, its long arc of digestion adds to its weight-management appeal, as it both makes people feel fuller-like all proteins-and extends that feeling over time.

MCC is a handy ingredient for processors, too. McDonald points to functional benefits like wetting, dispersability, heat stability at neutral pH, and solubility. Sager notes that her company’s powdered form of the ingredient dissolves readily and tolerates heat up to ultra-high temperatures (290 °F). “In comparison,” she says, “plant proteins don’t always dissolve, can denature with high heat and can produce a very gritty texture.”


All in Good Taste

Another plant protein disadvantage: They don’t always taste so great. Consumers often label their taste as “beany,” “brothy,” “strong,” “earthy,” and “bitter.” Although masking systems somewhat overcome plant’s characteristic off notes, they rarely do the whole trick and can muck up the “clean” labeling that drives so many consumers to plant proteins in the first place.

Dairy proteins, on the other hand, call to mind terms like “mild,” “neutral,” “clean-tasting,” and-obviously “dairy-like,” which “makes them acceptable to most consumers” and “easier to formulate into a wider range of palatable products, from snacks to dairy proteins to beverages,” Frederiksen says. This versatility “is a real benefit if you’re looking to target as many shoppers as possible,” she notes.


Keep It Clean

So, with a flavor that’s complementary rather than overpowering-plus superior nutrition, novel ingredient options, and functional properties ranging from emulsification and foaming to water binding and gelation-what could dairy proteins possibly still be missing?

If you’re thinking, “a clean and green narrative,” you’re wrong: they’ve got that, too. Says Frederiksen, “Dairy proteins like whey have a great story to tell.” McDonald agrees, adding that “the sustainability element is probably the most misunderstood element that seems unnecessarily to sell dairy short.”

Dairy proteins receive criticism for the heavy resource input their production entails. But, says McDonald, “Food systems are complex. Not only should the resources needed to make a food be considered, but the unique nutritional value it delivers should be weighed, too.”

On top of that, “If you haven’t visited a local dairy farm since elementary school,” she adds, “you might not realize the intense management to ensure the cows’ health and comfort.” After all, dairy farmers gain no margin mistreating their key asset.

What’s more, US dairy farmers continually meet food safety standards and remain committed to sustainability, McDonald says. Fully 90% less land, 65% less water and a 63% smaller carbon footprint go into producing a gallon of milk than were needed in 1944, she notes. “And dairy production only accounts for approximately 2%5 of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.”

As for dairy proteins themselves, Rowan argues that consumers should see them “as highly natural. In fact, dairy protein comes in formats that are far less processed than plant-derived protein ingredients. So to compare dairy and plant proteins for nutrition, taste, functionality, color, extent of processing and impact on the environment, dairy compares well.”


Getting the Story Out

The challenge, then, may be convincing consumers of this. “It’s very positive that there’s now widespread awareness that protein is good for you,” Staley says. “Now we need to concentrate on the clarity of message and robust substantiation to give the consumer a positive ‘reason to believe.’”

McDonald contends that domestic dairies already are. “The U.S. dairy industry is coming together to remind U.S. consumers why dairy has been a traditional staple in their diets with the new campaign, Undeniably Dairy,” she says. The effort, she insists, is already paying dividends: “As more of these health-and-wellness benefits are explored, the more dairy will find a valuable place in consumers’ diets and food and beverage formulations.”

And if there’s room for plant proteins, too, the more the merrier. As Frederiksen says, “We do not view the market for proteins as a battlefield where victory resides with one side only. We believe that the proliferation of proteins is generally a positive thing because it raises the awareness of protein’s benefits in general.” When that happens, dairy can only benefit.



Also read: 

2017 Ingredient Trends to Watch for Food, Drinks, and Dietary Supplements: Plant Protein vs. Dairy Protein

Which Flavors Work Best for Dairy Protein versus Plant Protein?

How Big a Threat Is Plant Protein to Dairy Protein?


  1. International Food Information Council Foundation. Food Decision 2016. Food & Health Survey. Accessed September 5, 2017.
  2. Whey Protein Products: Global Markets. January 2016. Accessed September 30, 2017.
  3. NACS. “Consumers Crave More Protein.” November 7, 2016. Accessed September 30, 2017.
  4. Mathai J et al. “Values for digestible indispensable amino acid scores (DIAAS) for some dairy and plant proteins may better describe protein quality than values calculated using the concept for protein digestibility-corrected amino acid scores (PDCAAS).” British Journal of Nutrition, vol. 117, no. 4 (April 2017): 490-499. doi:10.1017/S0007114517000125.
  5. Thomas GJ et al. “Greenhouse gas emission from milk production and consumption in the United States: A cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment circa 2008.” International Dairy Journal, suppl. 1 (2012): 31
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