How advances in analytical testing are supporting the development of new plant-based dairy alternatives


Globally, milk and dairy products rank among the top the eight main allergens that affect consumers around the world. In America in particular, 32 million people suffer from some form of allergy, of which 4.7 million allergic to milk. In addition, it is estimated that approximately 70% of adults worldwide have expressed some form of Lactose intolerance. As such, it is important that key players in the dairy industry create new products that meet the wants and needs of consumers.

Low lactose products have been available since the 1980s. But in recent years the demand for plant-based alternatives to dairy products has increased. Part of this demand comes from people who cannot digest lactose or people with allergies to dairy products. However, as all consumers continue to scrutinize their food labels and assess the environmental and ethical impact of their food choices, plant-based milk has become an attractive alternative to traditional dairy products.

To adapt to this changing landscape, traditional dairy processors began to create these alternatives in addition to their usual product lines. As such, they must have access to instruments that are flexible enough to help them overcome the challenges of testing new plant-based milks, while maintaining efficient analysis and testing of conventional product lines.

Low in lactose, high quality

Some consumers, although not allergic to dairy products, lack the enzyme lactase which is responsible for breaking down the disaccharide, lactose, into more easily digestible glucose and galactose.

Low-lactose products first appeared in 1985 when the USDA developed technology that allowed milk processors to produce lactose-free milk, ice cream and yogurt. This meant that consumers who previously had to avoid dairy products could still enjoy their nutritional benefits without any unwanted side effects.

As with conventional dairy products, routine in-process analysis in lactose-free dairy production is often performed using infrared spectroscopy, due to its speed of notification. In addition, the wavelengths used to identify dairy components are well documented, making it easier to determine fats, proteins and sugars.

Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) technologies are the most popular infrared spectroscopy instrument used in the analysis of dairy products. As the cream is still very liquid, even at high solids levels, the FTIR can still be used effectively for the determination and analysis of its components. For products with a higher percentage of solids, typically greater than 20%, near infrared (NIR) spectroscopy can provide much better results. Due to its ability to penetrate optical paths up to 20mm, this method is more suitable for the analysis of cheeses and yoghurts. For low lactose products in particular, FTIR technology is an integral part of production, as it can also be used to monitor lactose degradation.

Finger on the pulse

For some consumers, dairy products should be avoided altogether. Unlike intolerances which only affect the digestive system, allergies affect the body’s immune system. This means that allergenic ingredients, such as milk or dairy products, are treated as foreign invaders and can cause serious side effects, such as anaphylactic shock, when ingested.

From 2012 to 2017, US sales of vegetable milk steadily increased by 61%. With this growing demand and the need to provide alternatives for people with allergies, it has never been more important to get plant-based milk processing right the first time. Although the quantification of fat, protein and sugar content remains important in these products, they pose different challenges for processors.

In order to mimic traditional dairy products, plant milk is often formulated with additional ingredients or a blend of two plant milks. Sunflower or safflower oil can be added to increase viscosity and syrup or cane salt can be added to enhance flavor. All of these can affect the stability of milk, so stabilizers or acidity regulators may also be present. In addition, no vegetable milk is the same. Coconut milk is very high in fat but very low in protein and sugar; on the other hand, oat milk is naturally very high in carbohydrates. This not only makes them suitable for different uses, but it also means that they require different analytical procedures to quantify their components.

Although many FTIR and NIR instruments can be applied to plant milk in the same way as cow’s milk, the ever-changing formulation differences pose challenges for processors. For example, how protein is determined in cow’s milk will vary from how protein is determined in almond milk. Both will follow a method of quantifying nitrogen content but must be multiplied by a different factor. To help overcome these challenges, many companies have started to develop herbal milk calibrations that can be used with existing infrared instruments. Currently, universal calibrations exist to determine the protein, fat, solids and sugar content of new products. With more research and data, it is likely that in the future these will be expanded to generate specific calibrations for soy, almond and oat milk.

Even with exciting advances in analytical testing for plant-based milk, the downtime for analysis is still much higher than traditional dairy products. This is due to the increased solids content of vegetable milk. Many are often a suspension of solid particles in an aqueous solution, as opposed to cow’s milk, which is a suspension of fat globules in aqueous solution. This means processors need to consider additional centrifugation and cleaning steps to ensure results are as accurate and repeatable as possible.

In addition to the FTIR and NIR instruments used for traditional dairy testing, plant milk can also benefit from the implementation of diode array (DA) NIR instruments in existing workflows. With the ability to be placed in-line and in-line, DA instruments can provide continuous reports on the building blocks of plant-based milk as they pass through the processing facility. These instruments can also produce results in about six seconds, compared to the 30 seconds of conventional IR instruments, and are therefore of great importance for the rapid notification of multiple tests in a day.

Keep it simple

Although consumption of dairy-free products is on the rise, a lot of plant-based milk is also made from other allergenic foods, such as soybeans, almonds, and peanuts. Therefore, having low lactose alternatives on the market is always helpful in providing consumers with a range of suitable options.

To do this, dairy processors and new plant-based milk processors need access to instruments that quickly and efficiently produce accurate compositional analyzes. For dairy processors who have recently started to create alternatives to low lactose or dairy free milk, it is important that their instrumentation is flexible and used for the analysis of all their products.

Looking to the future, it is likely that dairy products and their herbal counterparts will have a place in the diet of consumers. Although there are disagreements on which of these products is the best, both for the environment and in terms of health, one thing that will become more and more important is the attitude towards the labeling of these products. . Clean labels and transparency about where products come from and the relative fat, protein and sugar content of foods are important to many consumers. Yet another reason why effective testing and analysis solutions must be available for food processors.


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