Field Notes: Fractionated dairy ingredients may be ingredient of profit

Sep 28, 2012

This is the latest installment of Harvest Public Media’s Field Notes, in which reporters talk to newsmakers and experts about important issues related to food production.

For this week’s Field Notes, reporter Justine Greve spoke with Dr. Stephanie Clark, an associate professor of Food Science at Iowa State University about a segment of the dairy industry we’re all familiar with but probably don’t know much about.

You may not know what a “fractionated dairy ingredient” is, but I can almost guarantee you've eaten one.

I had never heard of the things until I started reporting on Kansas Dairy Ingredients, a processing plant opening next year in southwest Kansas. To find out just what a “dairy ingredient” is, I got in contact with Dr. Stephanie Clark, an associate professor of Food Science at Iowa State University and an expert on various dairy-related topics. She told me that on a basic level, fractionation is the separation of milk into its component parts. In a sense, skim milk is a fractionated dairy ingredient; it's whole milk with the fat taken out. Scientists can also remove the lactose or the vitamins and minerals that are in milk. But when people in the dairy business talk about fractionation, what they're probably talking about is isolating proteins.

To get dairy protein by itself, manufacturers start with milk or the whey left over from the cheese-making process. They run the liquid through a filter so that they end up with a densely concentrated protein solution on one side. After the protein is concentrated, they can evaporate and dry it to form a powder. 

Protein powders appear in lots of products—maybe even something you've eaten today. If you see “whey powder,” “non-fat dry milk,” or “milk protein concentrate” on a food's list of ingredients, it contains protein derived from dairy. These ingredients are common in baked goods, nutrition bars, beverages, yogurt, infant formula—and have been for years. Over time, fractionation technology has become more sophisticated. Companies can now isolate certain parts of proteins that have the specific nutritional or functional profile they're looking for. 

“There are all sorts of things we can do,” Clark said. “If we want something that's like an egg white substitute, we want an ingredient that can foam like eggs but is not eggs, then we use beta-lactoglobulin or alpha-lactalbumin because they foam pretty well.  So we can sell that an as ingredient.”

With increasing consumer demand for high-protein products, the market for fractionated dairy ingredients is growing. But isolating proteins isn't just about creating a new type of yogurt or granola.  Researchers are especially interested in “bioactive peptides,” parts of proteins which are produced in the human body and in some fermented dairy products. Clark says scientists suspect these peptides may have significant health benefits to offer. 

“Some of them have cholesterol-lowering benefits, some of them have anti-hypertensive effects,” Clark said. “There are a whole bunch of other research projects out there trying to understand better what these biologically active peptides do in the human body. So it might be in weight loss, it might be in reducing blood pressure, it might be in slowing down the growth of cancer cells, it might be in lowering cholesterol.”

Whether fractionation provides us with a miracle cure or simply a better egg substitute, those in the dairy business may soon find that they can multiply their profits by dividing their product.

Hear more of our conversation with Dr. Clark by clicking the play button above. Thanks to Willie DE for letting us use a clip of his song "Little Farm" in the outro to this episode of Field Notes.