In comments to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, March 3, the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) outlined the nutritional benefits of dairy products and highlighted the industry’s ongoing efforts to reformulate products to provide lower levels of sodium, sugars and fat where possible. IDFA also explained the challenges that complicate these efforts to change the nutrient profile of dairy products.
Perhaps the most visible step taken by the dairy industry is the successful use of portion control packaging to help consumers control their sugar, fat and calorie intake, the comments explained. Cheese sticks, individual yogurt cups, single-serve bottles of milk and ice cream novelties are popular examples. But many other research and reformulation initiatives are underway.
Most dairy products generally have a low level of naturally occurring sodium, but salt is a key functional ingredient for many types of cheese. IDFA explained that U.S. cheesemakers are working individually and as a whole, through the U.S. Innovation Center for Dairy, to consider ways to address the level of sodium in their products. Some have successfully developed and sold lower sodium cheese options, especially to the food service market because changes here are less visible to consumers.
“While these products fill a niche need with consumers, many large retailers have found them to be an important part of their category assortment,” the comments said. “With ongoing industry support, these items will continue to address consumers’ and retailer’s evolving needs.”
Lower sugar options for flavored dairy products, such as light yogurts with low or no added sugar and no sugar added ice cream products, have been available for years. But many dairy companies are now setting goals to lower total sugars or reduce the level of added sugar in other products to lower calories.
Reformulations have been especially successful in the flavored milk category.” The average calorie levels of flavored milk sold in school have been reduced by 43 calories over the past six years due to processors’ diligent work to reformulate products with less sugar and fat,” the comments said. “In 2012-2013, the calorie level for fat-free flavored milk averaged 121.8 calories per cup, which is a significant reduction from the level of 166.1 calories in the 2006-2007 school year. Added sugar in chocolate milk for schools has declined by 45% over that same six-year period, decreasing from 16.7 grams to 9.2 grams per cup.”
There are fat-reduced versions of all major dairy products, including milk, yogurt, cheese and ice cream. Low-fat and fat-free milk make up a significant portion of the milk consumed, and the majority of yogurt sold in the United States is low-fat or fat-free. Ice cream has followed a similar trend to fluid milk, offering a wide variety of products to meet individual consumer preferences. Companies continue to work to find lower fat options for cheese, but the consumer demand for fat-free cheese is very low, the comments said.
Although the dairy industry has worked for years to lower sodium, added sugars and fat, a number of challenges remain, including food regulations, consumer acceptance and increased costs of reformulated products. For example, the 97 standards of identity that currently exist for dairy products can be obstacles to innovation because the products must adhere strictly to the specified requirements, including ingredients and composition.
In the end, however, consumer acceptance may be the most important hurdle to overcome. “Reformulation will only work if the updated food is attractive to consumers,” the comments said. IDFA recommended small “stealth reductions” over time to allow consumers to adjust to a less sweet or salty taste while they continue to enjoy the product.