Here’s what I remember about dairy when I was a kid: A glass of milk at dinner, Kraft macaroni and cheese, Dannon yogurt, individually wrapped slices of American cheese, and once in a while, a fancy cheese from the deli counter, like Muenster or Swiss. It wasn’t until I was sitting in a conference room in Madison, Wis., last fall that I fully understood how few choices we had just a couple decades ago.
I met the director of the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a few members of his staff. Behind me was a bookshelf filled with titles such as Wisconsin Cheesecyclopedia and Advanced Dairy Chemistry. And in the middle of the table was an aluminum bowl filled with ice and drink options, including eight-ounce bottles of milk with a Wisconsin Badgers logo, sourced from the dairy cattle center next door.
These days, dairy products such as Greek yogurt and goat cheese are so commonplace in grocery stores that I'd forgotten they weren’t always there. Funny how we block out those dark days of relative deprivation. But the CDR crew reminded me how far we’ve come.
Now more than ever, the dairy industry – from farmers to innovation centers – is churning out new, and in some cases revolutionary, ways for consumers to get their dairy. With the attempt to reverse the decades-long decline of milk consumption comes the development of dairy products that offer the perfect combination of protein, calcium, flavor and on-the-go packaging. Some products are welcome, and some, let’s face it, are over the top and absurd. (Jellybean-flavored milk, anyone?)
But the more I poked around in the dairy aisle, the better I understood that the industry is experiencing a sea change. It used to be that going for a milk run was about as exciting as going to fill your car up with gas. And cheese was … well, that takes us back to mac and cheese in the skinny blue box. It left a lot to be desired. With expanded offerings, healthier options and a nod toward convenience, we have entered the era of Next-Gen Dairy.
Calling the cheese doctor
According to John Lucey, director of the CDR and professor of food science, Wisconsin produces one-quarter of all U.S. cheese (and half of the specialty cheeses). Dairy has a $26.5 billion impact on the state, which is home to more than 140 cheese plants and a dozen butter plants. This is the place to be if you care about dairy. And in the conference room, I found myself sitting with some of the folks responsible for its future.
“We don’t make or sell any products, but we use our knowledge to help develop products, educate and troubleshoot,” Lucey said. CDR, which is largely funded by the dairy industry, offers courses and expertise to dairy companies, startups and industry suppliers including Kraft Foods, Sargento and Emmi.
“They’d say, ‘I'd love to come up with this new kind of product,’ and we set up a trial and do the analysis,” Lucey said. “Or a cheese-maker wants to know what will happen if he reduces sodium in his cheese, or how to lower the fat content.” When you’re a cheese-maker, problems can arise with anything from flavor inconsistencies to problems with melting; Lucey said CDR is available, like a doctor on call.
Take blue cheese, for example. People love the flavor, but it’s tricky on a burger or sandwich – it crumbles and it doesn’t melt well. So the team at CDR helped come up with a solution: Blue Marble Jack, a cheese that melts and slices like Monterey Jack but looks and tastes like blue cheese.
One of the biggest drivers behind cheese innovation is the demand for artisan, or specialty, cheeses. The artisan pedigree is appealing to the same types of high-end consumers who are drawn to regional craft beers and locally grown produce. In the early 1990s, a group of top chefs would have bought their high-quality cheeses in Europe. In the last five years, Lucey said, the United States has become a net exporter of cheese, and we can buy domestic equivalents of just about any cheese that we once had to import.
“Today, we have award-winning specialty cheeses from Wisconsin,” Lucey said. “I’ve had French people come up to me and say our locally-made specialty cheeses are really good. That’s the ultimate compliment.”
With prices that can easily be eight times that of a commodity cheese like cheddar, specialty cheeses such as Pleasant Ridge Reserve (which has been named the American Cheese Society's Best of Show and retails for $26 per pound) are responsible for increased spending in the cheese case, as well as increased consumption. According to Lucey, Americans used to eat an average of 17 pounds of cheese per person per year; today, we average 33 pounds.
Another still-exploding trend is the Greek yogurt phenomenon. Generally tangier and more concentrated than traditional yogurt, Greek yogurt contains twice the protein of traditional yogurt. CDR worked with the founders of Smári, an Icelandic yogurt, to develop a super-strained product that has triple the protein of regular yogurt, which rolled out last year.
Alan Reed, senior vice president of Dairy Management Inc., which manages the National Dairy Council, said he’s seeing a lot of Greek yogurt everything – from ice cream to salad dressing. He said the trend is still “on fire” now, but he expects it to stabilize, leaving a longer-term opportunity for high-protein products. But that begs the question: Do we really need more protein?
“Generally, Americans get more protein than they need,” said Connie Weaver, head of the nutrition science department at Purdue University. “But it’s a different story for dairy.” She said about 70 percent of our calcium comes from dairy, so she sees the Greek yogurt fad – which only makes up a small percentage of dairy – as a move in the right direction.
Weaver said if we aren’t going to drink our three cups of low-fat milk per day, beverages such as soy milk and orange juice with added calcium are good alternatives. And calcium-fortified foods are another solution, especially with kids. “They aren’t as likely to take supplements,” she said, “so you need a stealth approach.”
The new new dairy
Weaver said if a kid will only drink chocolate milk, it’s better that she has the added sugar in the chocolate versus skipping dairy altogether. The problem arises with some of these crazy flavors, like Hiland Dairy’s new milks rolling out this spring: Easter Egg Nog, Jellybean and Chocolate Marshmallow.
“The industry has to get its act together,” dairy market analyst Jerry Dryer said about some of the products that are more suited to the candy aisle. “Flavored milk is a delightful thing, and it has so much potential. But so many companies use artificial flavors, and I think that’s a no-no. You have this wholesome product, and then you put in imitation chocolate flavor, just because it lasts longer or it’s cheaper.”
Flavored milk aside, what other trends are buzzing around dairy? In addition to added protein and calcium, there’s low-sodium, a move toward clean labels with simple ingredients, convenience, domestic and local sourcing and the addition of whey beyond bodybuilder shake powder.
* In February, a company called fairlife (of which Coca-Cola is a minority investor) launched a lactose-free milk with 50 percent more protein and calcium and half the sugars of regular milk. At $4 per half-gallon, the product is to the milk market what Naked and Odwalla have been to the juice aisle: disruptive.
* Kraft, whose brands include Velveeta and Lunchables, recently launched a Philadelphia Cream Cheese spread with double the protein; Kraft Singles with no artificial preservatives; and Breakstone’s Greek Style Sour Cream with half the fat and double the calcium and protein of regular sour cream.
* Portability is a major trend. Even babies are getting into the mix, with products such as Happy Family’s Happy Yogis, freeze-dried organic fruit and yogurt drops for babies and toddlers.
* Skipping breakfast because you’re too busy? The dairy industry has countless solutions for you, because, well, it’s hard to eat yogurt in the car. The National Dairy Council is promoting grab-and-go recipes for breakfast items, including a yogurt bar filled with blueberries and Greek yogurt and a muffin-shaped combination of whole-grain bread, eggs, cheese and broccoli. A new-product competition among students last year yielded breakfast products such as Moofins ( including blueberry sausage and maple bacon cheddar), Early Qurd (a cherry and vanilla low-fat cheese) and Miss Muffet Bars (a blueberry-flavored cottage cheese and whey protein-filled bar coated in dark chocolate.
* Asia is a huge market for the U.S. dairy industry. Not only are we exporting fluid milk to China, but manufacturers are working to develop new products and uses for cheese and dairy byproducts such as whey, about half of which is exported today.
* Whey is a byproduct of making cheese – 80 percent of the proteins end up in cheese, and 20 percent end up in the whey, which is largely water. (It’s sometimes compared to crude oil – there’s lots of good stuff inside, but you have to extract it.) Whey was once spread on fields or fed to livestock, but today, the industry understands its value – it aids in muscle recovery and ranks high on the scale of nutritionally complete proteins. As a result, it’s now added to all sorts of drinks and snacks, such as Special K20’s protein water mix and Better Whey of Life’s low-fat Greek yogurt.
The most local ice cream
In the conference room at the University of Wisconsin, I asked the dairy experts whether we’d soon see a whey ice cream bar, hoping they would give me a sneak peek into their top-secret product development.
"I don’t know,” Lucey said, smiling, “All kinds of wacky ideas come across the table."
I left the conference room and toured the dairy plant, walking by stainless steel vats that hold hundreds of pounds of milk, giant ice cream machines and contraptions that can stretch string cheese to 100 feet. I passed a hallway of industrial refrigerators that stored things like 20-pound blocks of pepper cheddar and bulk butter for the residence halls.
After the tour, I walked down the hallway, following cow-colored steppingstones. There were giant pictures of cheese in the stairwell, and I found my way to the building’s dairy store. Out front, a group of middle school children sat on the steps eating bowls of ice cream in rainbow colors. I had been hearing all day about the ice cream here, and after all the talk about high-tech dairy, I was starving and craving nothing more than a low-tech scoop.
For $1.75, I bought myself a cup of mint chocolate chip and walked to my car, catching a whiff of the nearby milking parlor. I tried eating while I was driving and ended up with minty drips on my seatbelt. This scoop of ice cream in a Styrofoam cup wasn’t compact, convenient or particularly nutritional, and there was nothing Greek about it. But it was made in the building I'd just left, from cows a couple hundred yards away, and you can’t get more local than that. And besides, as I jockeyed between the stick shift of my car, the plastic spoon and my mouth, I really wasn’t thinking about trendy dairy. At that moment, I was only thinking that mint chocolate chip ice cream was the best and most delicious invention ever.
Photos: The Center for Dairy Research
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