Guest Columns

Dairy Research

What is driving the growth in milk protein?

John Lucey

John Lucey, director of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR) at the University of WIsconsin-Madison, contributes this column for Cheese Market News®.

Over the past 30 years there have been many dramatic changes in the U.S. dairy industry, but one of the key innovations has been the development of higher protein powders derived from both milk and whey. To clarify, milk protein powders include milk protein concentrate (MPC) and milk protein isolate (MPI), while whey powders include whey protein concentrate (WPC) and whey protein isolate (WPI).

U.S. production of MPC has increased steadily from little production a few years ago to more than 157 million pounds in 2015, according to the American Dairy Products Institute (ADPI). Technological innovations in membrane filtration, protein concentration and drying have been essential to the development of these new products. Increased consumer demand for dairy proteins has been the driving factor as consumers have shown a growing appreciation of the excellent nutritional quality of dairy proteins. Dairy proteins also have proven to be very versatile and highly functional, which has allowed for their use in everything from sports drinks to bars and in baking applications.

While both milk-derived powders and whey-derived powders have many nutritional and functional benefits, they do differ slightly. For example, milk powders contain both casein and whey protein in a similar ratio to milk, whereas whey powders contain mostly whey protein and minimal casein. Whey protein contains an extremely high concentration (26 percent) of branched chain amino acids (BCAA) including leucine. Exciting nutrition research has shown that BCAA, and especially leucine, help initiate muscle protein synthesis and are important for muscle recovery. Whey protein also has been shown to aid in weight loss, helps to maintain blood glucose level and can help to promote healthy aging (reducing the risk of conditions like sarcopenia).

These traits also are well aligned with strong consumer interest in high protein diets, especially as recent suggestions recommend that individuals should be consuming 25-30 grams of protein per meal to try to maximize muscle protein synthesis. Milk protein powders also contain BCAA, but not in as high amounts as are present in whey protein.

In terms of milk protein applications, muscle recovery products have been an area of impressive growth.

From bars to drinks, the muscle recovery and satiety benefits of milk protein have made it a popular choice for food manufacturers. Currently, close to 50 percent of MPC powders are utilized in applications like sports powders, sports beverages and mainstream nutrition products, according to ADPI. There are, of course, different application opportunities depending upon the type of protein. Overall, protein claims are a growing trend worldwide and consumers are increasing their intake of protein, according to the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which has encouraged the growth of the dairy protein ingredient market.

The infant formula/baby food sector is a major part of the dairy industry’s future. In fact, it is currently valued at a $50 billion international market. A highly desirable product, various milk proteins are often utilized in infant nutrition. Research continues to search for formulas that more closely resemble human milk. Strong research programs on milk protein fractionation are helping drive new processes within the dairy industry to develop novel protein products. For example, research here at CDR, in collaboration with University College Cork (Ireland), is exploring innovative methods to create a protein profile that more closely matches human milk. Additionally, research at CDR, in collaboration with the UW Medical School, is studying techniques that could reduce the incidence of cow’s milk protein allergy, which is a problem for a growing number of infants and young children.

There is much we still have to learn about milk proteins but it’s exciting to think of the progress that has already been made. All of this knowledge is available thanks to the partnerships between researchers and the dairy industry. Researchers have extensively studied basic functional attributes like gelation, heat stability, solubility and flavor. And, in turn, dairy manufacturers have been able to design products targeted to specific food applications. It’s thanks to the strong partnerships between dairy farmers, manufacturers and research entities that these breakthroughs in dairy research have been possible. These partnerships have provided innovative, value-added products for the domestic and international markets. That’s why it’s essential for the industry to continue to work together to support the kind of research that makes the U.S. dairy industry innovative and strong.


The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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