"Hold the pickles. Hold the lettuce. Special orders don’t upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve you your way.” This was the Burger King jingle from back in the 1970’s and likely the beginning of the concept of food personalization.

Today’s consumers seek out foods tailored to their needs and preferences. While products that deliver more protein or fiber, or carry natural or organic claims attract, in many instances consumers are looking for products “free from” ingredients or nutrients they are trying to avoid. This is taking place across all dairy product categories and presents an opportunity for dairy processors to offer something for everyone, even vegans.


A booming business

The demand for free-from foods is rising and not just by consumers with allergies and sensitivities. The global free-from-food market is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 9.5% from 2022 to 2027, according to Mordor Intelligence. This growth is as much about real or perceived better-for-you eating as it is about technical advancements in biological analysis to guide consumers in making dietary choices that enable their body to function at its best.

Sometimes this means the elimination of an ingredient that is a cornerstone of the food. Removing or breaking down lactose in milk is one example. It also includes the omission of “taboo” food components, such as artificial ingredients, preservatives and added sugars. For some consumers, it’s about being free of genetically modified organisms, artificial growth hormones or antibiotics. For others, it’s a matter of their health.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a draft guidance in April that outlines the agency’s approach to evaluating the public health risks of food allergens that are not one of the major nine allergens. The guidance describes the approach the FDA generally intends to take when evaluating the public health importance of a non-listed food allergen.

“The nine major food allergens don’t currently represent all foods nationwide that people are allergic to or that cause food hypersensitivities,” said Susan Mayne, PhD, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “This draft guidance is part of the FDA’s efforts to evaluate emerging evidence about other non-listed food allergens that can cause serious reactions in a consistent and transparent manner, which can inform potential future actions to better help protect the health of consumers.”


Going lactose-free

Lactose-free is likely the most common free-from claim in the dairy sector. Real or perceived, a growing number of consumers claim to be lactose intolerant or to have lactose sensitivities. As a result, they avoid all dairy products. Processors are discovering that eliminating lactose – a disaccharide unique to all mammalian milk – from dairy foods may prevent consumers from switching to dairy alternatives when the sole reason for the swap is to avoid lactose.

Approximately 65% of the human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose, according to the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md. This is due to the lack of the enzyme lactase, which is responsible for breaking lactose down into the monosaccharides glucose and galactose. When lactose does not break down in the small intestine, it passes into the large intestine, where it may cause diarrhea, bloating and gas.

Lactose-intolerance symptoms typically occur when the load of lactose is very large and rapidly arrives in the large intestine. If small amounts of lactose slowly arrive, the microflora in the gut digests the lactose at an even rate and no or minimal discomfort is experienced by those individuals who lack lactase.

good culture lactose free cottage cheese

Research shows that consumers with lactose intolerance can actually tolerate small doses of fluid milk – the dairy product that’s the most concentrated source of lactose – throughout the day. Further, there are many dairy products that contain so little lactose that they should not be an issue.

In 2021, the Hershey Co. partnered with The a2 Milk Company to introduce a co-branded chocolate milk.

The milk used by The a2 Milk Company comes from cows that produce only the A2 protein rather than the combination of A1 and A2 proteins contained in most dairy products. Research suggests milk that naturally contains the A2 protein may help avoid stomach discomfort in some people.

“This new chocolate milk is the latest example of how we are expanding The Hershey Co. into expanded better-for-you categories,” said Ernie Savo, senior director of global licensing for The Hershey Co. “Partnering with The a2 Milk Company not only aligns us with a brand that is synonymous with quality and rapid growth but also selling a product that is a staple in almost every family’s refrigerator.”

When it comes to natural cheeses – the more aged the cheese, the less lactose – contain less than 0.1 grams of lactose per serving, with sugars reported as zero on the Nutrition Facts. Cheese marketers don’t typically make lactose-free claims, but some have started.

In many instances, cheese makers – and other dairy foods marketers – are using high-performance liquid chromatography assays to confirm the absence of lactose. The test is relatively easy and can be done in the manufacturing facility’s quality control lab using a bench-top testing system.

Most fermented dairy products – kefir, sour cream and yogurt – also contain very low levels, if any, of lactose. That’s because the cultures ferment the lactose, breaking it down into glucose and galactose.

With ice cream, special efforts are required. Boston-based Beckon ice cream is all about keeping lactose-intolerant consumers buying real dairy ice cream. Beckon eliminates lactose by adding lactase to the milk during manufacturing, breaking down the lactose into tummy-friendly monosaccharides.

“It’s time to shift what we thought was possible. Beckon is here to welcome lactose-intolerant ice cream lovers back to real premium ice cream,” said Gwen Burlingame, co-founder. “We chose the name Beckon to illustrate that invitation or call to join in. Our ice cream is not an alternative; it’s the real deal. We’re extending deliciously creamy, dairy-full ice cream to an entire group of individuals who have previously had to compromise.”

A side perk to using the lactase enzyme is that the lactose gets broken down into glucose and galactose, which are both sweeter than lactose. In products such as flavored milk, ice cream and yogurt, an added-sugar reduction may be possible. With the right flavoring system and the use of high-intensity sweeteners, a free-from added sugars claim can be made.

In the past year, Irvine, Calif.-based Good Culture added lactose-free cottage cheese to its lineup. Made with simple ingredients, including gut-friendly live and active cultures as well as pasture-raised milk sourced from small family farms in the Midwest, the new thick and creamy cottage cheese boasts 14 grams of protein per serving. Lactase enzyme makes it easier to digest.

Organic Valley, La Farge, Wis., uses lactase in its new flavored organic lactose-free creamers that come in French vanilla and sweet cream flavors. Designed for at-home baristas, the creamers contain 40% less sugar than the leading flavored creamer brand.

“We know consumers today are drinking more coffee on a daily basis and looking for premium products that can up-level their at-home beverage experience,” said Minh-Quan Huynh, senior brand manager. “Most creamers on the market are higher in sugar and come with a laundry list of ingredients, so we know consumers will love that the new richly-flavored Organic Valley Creamers are lactose-free, have a smooth, creamy taste and no artificial ingredients.”

Another way to remove lactose is through filtration. This is the approach taken by Fairlife, Chicago, to produce its namesake lactose-free fluid milks, milk-based beverages, ice creams and refrigerated yogurts. The company filters milk, separating it into five streams: water, fat, lactose, protein and vitamins and minerals, and then recombines them in different proportions. The lactose is simply not added back into its products. In some products, such as the yogurt, lactase is also included for insurance.


Creative solutions

Processors getting creative with global recipes will try to produce as authentic of a product as possible. For Mansoor Ahmed, founder of Heritage Kulfi, Princeton, NJ, that means not only sourcing traditional flavoring ingredients, but also not using eggs in the Indian-style of ice cream (kulfi) he produces. Kulfi is known for its creamy taste and dense texture. After a year of development, sampling and sourcing ingredients, the company’s full flavor line launched in 2021.

“The choice not to use eggs is unusual in the luxury ice cream world,” said Ahmed. “Many South Asians avoid eggs. It was important to respect and include as much of the community as possible. On top of that, Princeton is part of a thriving regional ice cream culture. There are many seasoned ice cream makers in the area, and the most prominent approach is fittingly called Philadelphia style. In this style, no eggs are used. The goal is to highlight milk and cream.”

While some allergens, such as gluten, aren’t top of mind when it comes to dairy products, some processors are taking the lead in ensuring that consumers need not worry about some of their favorite treats.

Several of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavors are now certified gluten-free. In 2020, the Burlington, Vt.-based ice cream giant announced that 10 of its popular flavors, such as Chunky Monkey and Phish Food, would be gluten-free. Cherry Garcia was the first to roll off the line with a mark from the Gluten-Free Certification Organization.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley that is not easily digestible by some people. Adverse effects can range from a gluten sensitivity to celiac disease.

“We’re glad we can now offer some flavor joy to even more people, including those who have to be very careful with their diet,” said Eley. “This certification can give them a little peace of mind.”


Animal-free dairy

One way to keep dairy relevant to vegetarians – even vegans – as well as sustainability-conscious consumers, is to remove the animal from the product formulation. That’s what companies such as Perfect Day Inc., Berkely, Calif., are helping processors accomplish. And, by the number of animal-free dairy foods in the marketplace made with Perfect Day’s cellular-based protein ingredient, the concept is resonating in the manufacturing space. Consumer education and acceptance will be critical to sales and growth.

Instead of relying on cows, Perfect Day uses microflora to create proprietary animal-free milk proteins that can be used across a range of products to deliver the same taste, texture and functionality as cows’ milk protein. While these animal-free dairy proteins are lactose free, they still contain certain “milk allergens.”

The manufacturing process for the company’s flagship ingredient – animal-free whey protein –reduces blue water consumption by up to 99%, greenhouse gas emissions by up to 97% and non-renewable energy use by up to 60%, compared to conventional production methods, according to the company. Perfect Day’s food processing business – The Urgent Company – uses the ingredient to manufacture a range of animal-free dairy foods, including Coolhaus and Brave Robot ice creams, Modern Kitchen cream cheeses and California Performance Co. protein powders.

Graeter’s Ice Cream, Cincinnati, was the first dairy to use Perfect Day’s proteins to make animal-free ice cream. Perfect Indulgence ice creams debuted in 2020.

“The taste of Perfect Indulgence is exactly what our customers have come to expect after 150 years of bringing them irresistibly indulgent ice cream,” said Richard Graeter, fourth-generation family member and president and CEO of Graeter’s Ice Cream. “We are excited to finally be able to serve authentic Graeter’s indulgence to guests who choose to eat vegan or cannot enjoy our regular ice cream due to a lactose intolerance. Until now, we couldn’t put our name on a vegan product because it simply did not live up to our standards. But now, with Perfect Day, we can.”

Napa, Calif.-based betterland foods uses Perfect Day’s proteins to make betterland milk. This shelf-stable beverage debuted in February. The following month came WOO, the first animal-free whey protein chocolate bar.

Animal-free protein innovation is here to stay. More than $1.7 billion has been invested in lab-grown protein and dairy companies as of March 2022. Further, the USDA has awarded $10 million to Tufts University to launch the National Institute for Cellular Agriculture.