Dairy product formulators are developing new products with an eye toward improving health and wellness.

Consumers are becoming more aware of how diet influences short- and long-term health and wellness. In response, many are seeking nutrient-dense foods to attain benefits beyond basic nutrition.

Inherently nutritious dairy foods are attractive delivery vehicles for dietary components that work behind the scenes to help prevent disease, as well as deliver a myriad of purported benefits ranging from anti-aging to inducing satiety. When such ingredients, which range from amino acids and fatty acids to antioxidants and plant extracts, are added to dairy foods, they get elevated to functional food status.

“People are seeking foods that provide functional health benefits, unique to their personal lifestyle and wellness needs,” said Ashley Rosales, nutrition and industry affairs officer, Dairy Council of California. “They increasingly see nutrition as a solution to well-being, and there is a growing demand for foods with health properties beyond basic nutrition. Milk and dairy foods have been a part of the human diet for thousands of years and are a key area of the global functional food market, as they can be formulated to include probiotic microorganisms and prebiotic fibers.”

Beyond basic

It has been driven home that calcium and vitamin D may prevent osteoporosis, while protein refuels muscle after exercise.

When American consumers define what makes a food healthy, it’s becoming more about what is not in a food rather than what is in it. The presence of artificial ingredients and preservatives is a leading deal breaker when it comes to purchase intent.

“More adults in the US are worried about their health than before, and each stage of life presents an opportunity to support good nutrition,” Rosales said. “Dairy foods offer a unique combination of nutrients that provide a range of health and functional benefits for people throughout their lifespan, supporting healthy growth and development in the earliest stages of life and throughout childhood, reducing the risk of diet-related chronic diseases in adulthood, and supporting healthy aging. Research shows that consumers with a higher acceptance for functional dairy products include females, people with higher health-related knowledge and aging adults.”

Still, consumers claim they are seeking more of several dietary components, most notably protein and fiber. Dairy may deliver both, and more, while also keeping a clean and simple label void of undesirable artificial ingredients.

dairy yogurt health wellness nutritionPhoto: Rido - stock.adobe.com

“Functional foods are those that provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition,” Rosales said. “Dairy foods like milk, yogurt and cheese provide essential nutrients, including vitamins A and D, zinc and protein, and have a unique dairy matrix that contains nutrients, bioactive compounds and other biological components that work together to support digestion, absorption, immunity and chronic disease prevention.”

Fermented dairy foods such as yogurt, kefir and certain cheeses contain probiotics, live microorganisms that have a health benefit when consumed. Dairy products provide an ideal atmosphere for delivering probiotics in the diet, protecting probiotic bacteria from high acid levels in the stomach and allowing higher levels of probiotics to reach the intestine, according to Rosales.

Furthermore, portion control and portability make many dairy foods attractive snacking options for today’s mini-meal consumers. Such convenience foods — namely cheese, yogurt, drinkable dairy and even ice cream — may be formulated to offer a nutritional profile that appeals to consumers, while the value-added products command a premium price, making them attractive to both manufacturers and retailers.

“Processors can also look at unique ways to add other functional ingredients, known to be mood boosting, to dairy foods,” Rosales said. “Examples are using popular consumer sought after ingredients like lavender, turmeric, chamomile, dark chocolate and nutrients like omega 3’s in products like milk and yogurt.”


Sports nutrition

The global sports nutrition market, which encompasses beverages, foods and supplements, is forecast to reach $75 billion by 2030, according to a new report by Grand View Research Inc., San Francisco. The growth represents a compound annual growth rate of 7.5% from 2024 to 2030.

Many active consumers understand how nutrition influences performance and recovery after exercise. That knowledge has energized product developers to explore more diverse concepts for the sports nutrition sector. They have essentially redefined it to be the active nutrition category, with products often formulated for specific age ranges and gender.

“The sports nutrition category has expanded both in user base and application format,” said Catherine Kwik-Uribe, chief science officer for Nutrition21, Saddle Brook, NJ. “No longer is the category limited to only sports beverages and protein powders, as there’s a growing range of sports supporting supplements in gels, gummies, effervescent tablets and other emerging formats. The expansion of new product formats has also drawn in new users, including younger consumers, women and especially aging active adults.”

Some people may be trying to build muscle or increase strength and endurance while others are looking for an energy boost during their workouts. Sometimes it’s simply about hydration. Whatever the need, products must be formulated with efficacious ingredients to deliver the desired results.

GoodSport sports drink hydration dairy based flavors Lemon Lime Fruit Punch Wild Berry CitrusPhoto: GoodSport

“While proteins, electrolytes and caffeine have been staples in sports nutrition, we are seeing the continuing expansion of the category to include a range of novel compounds,” Kwik-Uribe said. “From bioactives like flavanols that promote blood flow, urolithin A that works at the mitochondrial level to support energy metabolism and muscular function, and even herbals like ashwagandha and ginseng for the management of physical and mental stresses. Athletes of all types are incorporating ingredients that can help to not only optimize performance — both physically and mentally — but also accelerate recovery.”

Beverages, especially ready-to-drink beverages, are recognized as the most convenient format for many functional ingredients. With their inherent high-water content, beverages speak to the need of hydration.

“Preference for beverages is driven by their convenience, versatility and ability to promote hydration while also delivering essential nutrients to support performance and recovery,” said Vaughn DuBow, global director of marketing — microbiome solutions, ADM, Chicago. “Whether in the form of sports drinks, protein shakes or electrolyte-infused waters, beverages support consumers with an accessible and effective way to fuel their bodies and optimize their performance before, during and after a workout.”

Research conducted for Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), Rosemont, Ill., showed that among health and wellness consumers, the No. 1 function they seek is hydration. And they want the products to be natural, simple and inexpensive. 

GoodSport, a Chicago-based startup, with the help of DMI, developed a clear hydration beverage that is 97% dairy. GoodSport launched in 2021 and delivers three times the electrolytes and 33% less sugar than traditional sports drinks.

After hydration, products providing sustained energy for performance are sought by active consumers. Sustained energy may come from various ingredients, including the carbohydrate isomaltulose.

Protein also plays a role in providing sustained energy. Whey has been recognized as the gold standard for post-workout muscle repair and recovery. However, it’s the other cows’ milk protein — casein — that provides sustained energy, as whey proteins are digested faster than casein proteins. On the plant side, soy proteins are also slowly digested.

“Consumers are increasingly interested in a wider range of protein sources, with many turning to alternative and plant-based protein options,” DuBow said. “Soy and pea are stand-out protein sources for the sports and active nutrition spaces, for both protein diversity and content.”


Gut-muscle axis

Traditionally, nutrition products have been marketed to help one be bigger, faster and/or stronger. Today, assisting with focus has become part of the category.

“Cognitive functions, such as focus and attention, are given equal importance alongside traditional aspects like physical recovery and hydration,” said Maria Stanieich, marketing manager, Kyowa Hakko USA, New York. “This shift acknowledges the interconnectedness of mental and physical performance, reflecting an evolving understanding of how improvements in cognitive health can have positive downstream effects on physical well-being.”

Scientific studies have shown a connection between the gut microbiome and physical and mental health. This “gut-muscle axis” shows what may be possible for muscle health support.

“Dairy foods benefit health beyond the energy and nutrients they provide,” Rosales said. “Some examples of these functional health benefits include improved gut health, reduced inflammation and positive impacts on chronic disease risk, immunity, sleep and brain health. Amplifying the functional health benefits of traditional dairy products will build value for their unique role in health and important role in everyday dietary choices.”

– Donna Berry contributed to this story.