LAS VEGAS — When the marketing team at Emmi Roth, which has US offices in Fitchburg, Wis., decided to develop limited-edition flavors of its gouda cheese, the company turned to social media to let its customers vote on the best concept. The spinach artichoke variety won.

“But the people who voted for hot honey and Buffalo ranch expressed their disappointment, so we decided to develop all three,” said Abby Despins, director of communications.

This aggressive innovation is taking place across the dairy products industry, in the refrigerator, freezer and even the ambient aisles. The latter is making dairy proteins the star of everything from shelf-stable smoothies to crunchy snacks to nutrition bars.

“Even with the shelves of alt milks crowding grocery store coolers these days, the US milk industry is a $15 billion category with 90% penetration,” said John Talbot, chief executive officer of the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB). “However, the industry is not known for sustainability or breakthrough creations. Milk processing plants focus on one thing — do it well and do it efficiently — but don’t do small runs or get involved in product development or innovation. It’s taken a while for the industry to realize that there’s a need for ingenuity, but it’s now embracing fresh ideas.”

For the past five years, CMAB has been working with innovators without any barriers. The Real California Milk (RCM) Excelerator was created in partnership with innovation consultancy VentureFuel. This past fall, in the competition’s fourth installment, which had an “open” innovation theme, four startups were recognized for their achievements and are currently receiving assistance from CMAB to grow their business. Two of the winners — Dosa by Dosa and Wheyward Spirit — showcased their innovations in the CMAB pavilion at the Winter Fancy Food Show, held Jan. 15 to 17 in Las Vegas.

Dosa by Dosa is a line of spice-forward lassi drinks. The four varieties contain up to 13 grams of protein and less than 8 grams of added sugar per 8-oz bottle. Varieties include cardamom mango, cayenne tamarind, turmeric banana and peppercorn berry.

Wheyward Spirit is a specialty alcohol distilled to retain its distinctive dairy flavor. The company is repurposing excess whey to make the new spirit, which may be consumed in the same manner as vodka. During the fermentation process, yeast converts the sugar (lactose) from whey into alcohol. The product is then distilled. No lactose remains in the final product so it is completely lactose free.

The spirit highlights whey’s creamy characteristics and has a signature flavor of oaky vanilla cream and warm spice notes, rounded by a subtle pear aroma.

Wonder Monday, Boston, was a finalist in an earlier installment of the RCM Excelerator. The brand made its official retail debut at this year’s Winter Fancy Food Show. The company is formulating a better-for-you spin on cheesecake, in terms of boosting protein content and eliminating added sugars. The mini cheesecakes come in five varieties: classic New York, chocolate, Key lime pie, salted caramel and strawberry. Pasteurized cultured milk and cream are the first two ingredients. Milk protein, eggs and almond flour are also key ingredients. The cheesecakes are sweetened with allulose and stevia.

“Such creative products are tackling some of consumers’ bigger concerns around sugar content and lactose sensitivity without sacrificing the taste and texture that make a dessert something special,” Talbot said. “Real dairy provides a package of functional and practical benefits that’s hard to replicate. We’re seeing an increase in unique products that leverage these benefits emerging in the market.”

Other innovations are being fueled by dairy proteins, namely whey, in one of its many formats. Dairy proteins are finding their way into grain-based breakfast foods. De Wafelbakkers, Little Rock, Ark., partnered with dairy protein brand, Premier Protein, Kings Mountain, NC, to launch frozen pancakes with protein that will hit retail freezers in early 2023. One serving contains 15 grams of protein and may be prepared in the microwave.

“Breakfast consumption at home is on the rise,” said Tom Polke, CEO, De Wafelbakkers. “As people look to add more protein to their diets, protein pancakes have taken off as a delicious way to kick start the day.”

Premier Protein also is rolling out Good Night Nutrition Shakes. The shelf-stable beverage is formulated to “help support a healthy sleep routine.” One 8.75-oz bottle contains 90 calories, 2 grams of fat, 2 grams of sugar, 7 grams of dietary fiber and 10 grams of protein, along with 12 vitamins and minerals. The beverage comes in three flavors: caramel, cocoa and vanilla.

Designer Wellness, Carlsbad, Calif., markets the Designer Whey brand of protein powders, along with shelf-stable Designer Wellness Protein Smoothie pouches. A 4.2-oz serving contains 12 grams of whey protein isolate and no added sugars. In addition to being made with fruit, Designer Smoothies contain medium-chain triglyceride oil.

Quest Nutrition, a business of The Simply Good Foods Co., Denver, built its product portfolio on using complete dairy-based proteins for a full amino acid profile. Quest started incorporating dairy proteins into bars in 2010, and within 10 years, expanded into cookies, chips, frozen pizza, shakes, chocolate confections and, most recently, cheese crackers that deliver 10 grams of protein and 5 grams of net carbohydrates per serving. Quest Nutrition exists because of the versatility and nutrient density of dairy proteins.