Technical Challenges of Alternative Dairy Beverages

Originally Published: August 4, 2022
Last Updated: October 18, 2022
Technical Challenges of Alternative Dairy Beverages-:Lindsay Wisener 2022 CLC

As a participant in the Applications Panel during the 2022 Clean Label Conference, Lindsay Wisener, MSc, Owner & Lead Product Developer, WiseBev, delved into the aspects of developing alternative milk products. Given at Global Food Forums’ 2022 Clean Label Conference, her presentation was titled “Technical Challenges of Alternative Dairy Beverages + A Comment on Botanicals.”

When formulating alternative milks, raw material selection is critical to product functionality, marketing and branding. For instance, what is the goal regarding claims? Will added sugar, which requires labeling, be a problem?

Chemical composition considerations include determining desired protein, insoluble fiber, sugar and fat content—plus the type of starch (i.e., gelling characteristics, reaction to heat, etc.). Several protein sources may be combined to boost protein, as in the Silk Protein product (see chart “Nutrition in Marketplace Alternative Milks”), which contains almond, cashew and pea to boost the protein to its 10g target, Wisener noted.

When developing an oat milk-based product, starch inherent in oats will gel, unless it is hydrolyzed. When hydrolyzed, the resulting ingredient is labeled as “partially hydrolyzed whole oat flour.” This causes somewhat of a paradox. First, is this considered a clean label? Secondly, the hydrolysis process results in added sugars.

Other Considerations

Physical characteristics, such as particle size must also be considered. For example, a nut butter used in a bar isn’t the correct particle size for a beverage. “Some particles are so big…they aren’t going to result in good products, and they’re not going to process well,” Wisener explained.

When batching alternative milks, dispersion and hydration are critical. Increasing the water temperature slightly helps with hydration, Wisener noted. Nearly all alternative milk products are produced using extended shelflife(ESL) or aseptic processing, so the pH should be kept near neutral.

Buffering agents are used in alternative milks to maintain a neutral pH and keep it from drifting toward the protein’s isoelectric point. Phosphates are commonly used as buffers, although Wisener has had some requests not to use these ingredients in clean labeled products. “Really, …it’s about the tradeoffs in functionality between what your product is and isn’t going to do,” she said.

Calcium carbonate is also used as a buffer. While it can be very interactive with protein, less soluble forms are used to avoid these interactions. It also aids in whitening, to produce a more milk-like appearance.

Regarding texture, gums and fat help mimic the creamy texture of dairy milk. Gellan gum and locust bean gum suspend small, insoluble particles. Coconut milk is used in products for its creaminess. It can be challenging to emulsify, so obtaining the correct mix may take some work, Wisener noted.

Flavors can be highly reactive with proteins, requiring flavor maskers, blockers or enhancers to achieve the desired flavor throughout the shelflife. Wisener has noticed many requests to include flavor extracts instead of natural flavors. “I’ve seen some brands where that, to them, speaks to clean,” she added.

What’s next for the alternative milk market? Blends are on the horizon. Also, alternative milks are made using potato, chickpea, hemp and seed proteins. Upcycling, or using byproducts instead of creating waste, is becoming more common. Some producers can use their own byproducts, such as the starch leftover after producing protein. The resulting end-products are not only dairy-free but good for the planet.

Many factors must be considered when developing clean alternative milk beverages. It often comes down to the tradeoffs in terms of functionality vs. brand messaging, Wisener claimed—adding yet another challenge to the mix.

““Technical Challenges of Alternative Dairy Beverages + A Comment on Botanicals,” Lindsay Wisener, MSc, Owner & Lead Product Developer, WiseBev. 

To view this presentation in pdf form, go to “Developing Alternative Milk Products” in Global Food Forums’ R&D Academy.