CHICAGO -- Move over milk and drinkable yogurt. It’s time to let dairy pour in new formats and flavors. Think creamy coffee and tea lattes, satiating meal replacement shakes, refueling isotonics. These are just some of the many new ways to drink dairy. 

The pandemic renewed consumers’ interest in basic nutrition, and for the first time in more than a decade, retail sales of fluid milk increased in 2020. Milk sales grew nearly $1 billion, according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI. This figure does not account for all the other beverages that rely on fluid streams of milk and cream, as well as dairy ingredients for flavor, function and nourishment. 

Some dairy ingredients add richness in the form of creamy and even frothy textures, while others dissolve into crystal clear solutions. Most dairy ingredients are embraced for their protein quality; however, those with fat content often have notoriety for their essential fatty acids. And do not discount the vitamins and minerals inherently present in milk. Advanced processing allows for the isolation and separation of all these nutrients for application in better-for-you beverages. Further, dairy’s presence is strong and growing in the sports nutrition sector thanks to specialty ingredients that excel in delivering pre- and post-workout fuel. 

Most dairy ingredients come in a dried, powder format. They require proper hydration and dissolution to prevent sedimentation. By using a dried format, rather than fresh milk, cream or even butter, all types of beverage processors can add dairy to their formulations without involving oversight by the US Department of Agriculture.

Each type of beverage formulation has unique requirements, suggesting that dairy ingredients are not a one-size-fits-all category. Dairy suppliers offer hundreds of different dairy ingredients with a range of functionalities, including clarity, emulsification, flavor, foaming, mouthfeel, solubility and texture. Dairy-based beverages present an opportunity to meet growing consumer demands for naturally functional foods. 

A Chicago-based start-up has launched GoodSport, a sports drink that is 97% dairy and aims to compete nationally against leading brands. At a glance, you would not know it is a dairy-based beverage, as GoodSport is a naturally colored, clear beverage like most isotonics in the marketplace. GoodSport Nutrition Founder and CEO Michelle McBride conceived the concept after being frustrated with the sports drink category options.  

“I didn’t want my son drinking sports drinks filled with artificial ingredients that were being offered to him at his baseball games,” she said. “I gave him chocolate milk as a healthier alternative after his workouts and it provided the inspiration to look at milk as a source of hydration during physical activity.”

Ms. McBride recognized that milk’s consistency and protein content were barriers for athletes before and during exercise for hydration. She sought out dairy ingredients that would be a source of the electrolytes and carbohydrates that are inherent to milk and necessary for effective hydration. In fact, scientific studies have shown milk hydrates better than traditional sports drinks and water.

GoodSport is not a fuel or refuel beverage, like other dairy-based sports nutrition beverages that contain protein. The isotonic relies on permeate, which is a co-product of the production of protein-containing dairy ingredients, such as whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, ultrafiltered milk, milk protein concentrate and milk protein isolate. Permeate is typically void of fat and has a minimum of 59% lactose (but sometimes as much as 85%) and a maximum of 10% protein and 27% ash. The permeate in GoodSport has been ultrafiltered to remove all protein; however, because there may be some residual protein, anyone with a dairy allergy should avoid the beverage. 

GoodSport’s patent-pending formula and process cracked the code to provide naturally powerful hydration in a clear and thirst-quenching beverage. It delivers three times the electrolytes and 33% less sugar than traditional sports drinks, Ms. McBride, said. The addition of the lactase enzyme converts lactose—a disaccharide unique to all mammalian milk—to the monosaccharides glucose and galactose, which are sweeter than lactose. This conversion, and the addition of some monk fruit and erythritol, allows for a no-added-sugar claim. All ingredients are from natural sources and the beverage provides a good source of calcium and an excellent source of B vitamins. Shelf-stable GoodSport comes in four flavors—citrus, fruit punch, lemon lime and wild berry--in 16.9-ounce bottles.

Kimberlee (K.J.) Burrington, director-training, education and technical development, American Dairy Products Institute, Elmhurst, Ill., assisted Ms. McBride with product development when working at the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She showed the GoodSport team how ultrafiltration could harness milk’s electrolytes, vitamins and carbohydrates and remove its protein to create a clear, light beverage with a mouthfeel that consumers expect from a sports drink. Ms. Burrington also helped the team source its main ingredient sustainably. 

“Dairy companies often ultrafilter milk for its protein, leaving behind what has become known as permeate,” she said. “GoodSport rescues this byproduct from dairy companies to produce its beverage.”

Pennsylvania dairy farmer Marilyn Hershey, a chair of Dairy Management Inc., Rosemont, Ill., said, “GoodSport carries dairy’s healthy halo. It not only offers delicious refreshment and nutrition from dairy, but it supports our industry’s sustainability mission. This is giving people a new way to talk about milk and that’s exciting for dairy farmers.”

Protein fuels innovation

While protein may not be in GoodSport, protein is fueling innovation in the dairy-based beverage sector. There are two primary categories of protein found in milk. Casein, also sometimes called caseinate, is the protein that makes cheese, unlike whey proteins, which are obtained from whey, a by-product of cheese manufacturing. 

Casein ingredients are obtained directly from milk and are recognized as being slowly digested proteins. This is why they are often included in meal replacement and weight-loss beverages, as they have the ability to satiate for a longer period of time. Whey proteins, on the other hand, are valued for their ability to promote muscle growth and decrease muscle soreness during strenuous exercise.

“Protein is the reason most beverage innovators include dairy ingredients,” Ms. Burrington said. “Ingredient selection is usually based on protein concentration, solubility and amino acid profile.”

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are concentrated in whey, appeal to the fitness world. The BCAAs are three of the essential amino acids--leucine, isoleucine and valine—and are responsible for metabolic and physiologic functions in the body. Some research shows that BCAAs help metabolize glucose, thus increasing energy and shortening recovery times after exertion, as well as support immune and brain function.

“Dairy protein beverages are an exciting area for the dairy industry,” Ms. Burrington said. “Innovative new products are hitting the shelves and consumers are beginning to appreciate the nutritional value of beverages made with dairy proteins. However, when developing these beverages, it is important to have a good understanding of the functionality of different dairy protein ingredients.”

Suppliers employ technologies to isolate and concentrate varied components from milk and whey to make a range of varied dairy protein ingredients. They also use technologies to modify proteins into highly functional ingredients for specific beverage applications. There are dairy protein ingredients that allow for high dosing without causing grittiness or sedimentation. There are others that allow for clarity and can even be used in protein waters. Others allow for faster absorption by the body. 

Hydrolyzed whey, for example, is a 90% to 95% whey protein ingredient that has been processed in a way that renders it easier for the body to absorb. This improves its bioavailability, increasing muscle protein synthesis after working out, which is why it is often used in post-exercise/recovery beverages. 

“One of the newer milk protein ingredients is micellar casein,” Ms. Burrington said. “This ingredient is typically 90% to 95% casein. It’s basically a concentrated source of casein obtained through microfiltration of milk.”

When determining the best dairy protein ingredient for a beverage, the first attribute to identify is the pH of the beverage. A low-acid beverage is typically anything above pH 4.6, while high-acid beverage is anything below pH 4.6. 

“Generally speaking, whey protein ingredients work best in high-acid beverages and milk protein ingredients have better functionality in low-acid beverages,” Ms. Burrington said. “Depending on the pH, hydrocolloids might be needed to add stability to the dairy protein. For instance, a whey protein isolate can be used to develop a clear high acid beverage. However, if the beverage has a mid-range pH (between 3.5 and 4.5), a stabilizer like pectin might be needed because the whey proteins are closer to their isoelectric point and a stabilizer like pectin will help prevent aggregation of the whey proteins during the heat process.”

The Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has conducted extensive investigation in the area of dairy-based beverage development. The farmer-funded research showed that the pH of the beverage also dictates the processing conditions. 

“Low-acid beverages that are shelf-stable have two processing options, retort and ultra-high temperature (UHT),” Ms. Burrington said. “For shelf-stable high-acid beverages, the typical processing option is hot fill. 

“Another processing option for high-acid beverages is basic pasteurization,” she said. “Some smoothie products are pasteurized. However, these products require refrigeration.”