‘Kids Milk’ project receives checkoff funding, researchers look to remove lactose and whey, add sugar

Does milk need reinventing for kids? USDA and dairy checkoff say yes. Meanwhile kids, parents and experts who’ve studied the issue say… not so fast… just allow the schools to provide whole milk as a choice. Istock photo by Aaron Amat

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, October 16, 2020

ALBANY, N.Y. – As part of the 2021 checkoff funds for Cornell dairy research approved recently by the New York State Dairy Promotion Advisory Board is the first phase (2021-22) of a two-year project to develop and build a “Kids Milk” for schools, foodservice and retail. The first phase is to complete the successful multi-step innovation process (remove lactose and add sugar), and the second phase will be to implement the “future view” (remove whey to improve shelf-stable flavor and reduce transportation cost and refrigeration).

The project was one of 12 presented by Cornell, which is one of five universities that are part of DMI’s Dairy Research Institute (DRI). The DRI was formed as a 501 c 3 non-profit by DMI’s Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy a decade ago in August of 2010.

Reading through this project’s innovation process and vision, in essence, by year two, ‘Kids Milk’ (aka ‘school milk’) could be compositionally the same as the ultrafiltered / microfiltered cheese starter milk that has the lactose and whey removed. In essence large-scale-cheese-vat-ready-milk would be positioned as ‘Kids Milk’ tested and touted as beneficial for children’s taste, tolerance and nutritional reasons, of course. (Think about this within the context of the large-scale cheese processing shifts now occurring in the dairy industry.)

According to the researchers’ slides presented to the NY Board in September, the ‘Kids Milk’ will be stripped of lactose, but then have sucrose (sugar) added in order to “achieve a higher sweetness intensity and achieve higher liking scores without increasing calories from carbohydrates in 1% fat chocolate milk,” for example. A copy of the Cornell researchers’ presentation is available online with the NY Board’s minutes at https://agriculture.ny.gov/dairy/dairy-promotion-order

The ‘Kids Milk’ would also be a high-heat pasteurized, extended shelf-life product, and the second phase talks about making it shelf-stable. In concert with this, another NY checkoff-funded Cornell project, in its second year of research, is determining how to solve off-flavors in extended shelf-life and aseptically-packaged shelf-stable milk products by removing the ‘offending’ whey — with an eye to the school foodservice applications in terms of transport and refrigeration.

The ‘Kids Milk’ research project is jointly sponsored by the NY State Dairy Promotion Advisory Board (checkoff) approving $76,269 per year for the portion conducted at Cornell, along with H.P. Hood and Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) funding the portion being conducted at North Carolina State University’s dairy research center. Hood’s contribution is $50,000 per year and DMI’s checkoff contribution is $20,000 to $30,000 per year.

In their presentation of the two-year research and innovation phase (2021-22), the Cornell researchers explained that they have proof of concept as of August 2020 for the first step in the two-step process of removing lactose and adding sugar to replace it. They explain in a power point slide that once they achieve success in the innovation research, they will move to the “view into the future” for ‘Kids Milk,’ using the microfiltration whey-removal research being done simultaneously at North Carolina State.

The “view of the future” for ‘Kids Milk’ is revealing and was described by researchers as follows:

Step 3 – “Increase the protein content by ultrafiltration to have 1% fat and 6 to 7% protein to build mouthfeel, achieve a calcium and protein per serving higher than regular milk, and bring the product to a milk solids-not-fat that would allow it to comply with standard of identity for milk and to be labeled lactose-free ultrafiltered milk.”

Step 4 – “Increase the protein content by ultrafiltration by a combination of ultrafiltration and microfiltration. Microfiltration removes milk derived whey proteins from milk. The milk derived whey proteins have been identified in our research as the ones that cause the objectionable cooked sulfur flavors in the UHT (extended shelf-life) milks. Our goal is to remove these proteins to build a milk that will taste good to children and meet nutrition guidelines while being shelf-stable. This will reduce shipping and distribution costs for milk by reducing the number of deliveries and the need to separate refrigerated delivery to schools.”

Back on August 5, 2020, DMI CEO Tom Gallagher in an ‘open mic’ call addressed the grassroots push to get whole milk back as a choice in U.S. schools. He stated to the farmers, board members and media on that Aug. 5 call that, “Farmers are great, and our product is great… but even if whole milk is eventually recommended for kids, we still need innovation to get it to the kids in a style that they like.”

Voila: ‘Kids Milk.’

Meanwhile, as reported in the August 7, 2020 edition of Farmshine, a simple trial at a middle and high school in Pennsylvania was conducted without fanfare — and anonymously due to USDA ‘milk rules’. It found that teenagers like milk the way it is, without the reinvention. 

In fact, this anonymous 2019-20 trial simply offered all fat percentages of milk, and within the first month, found students choosing whole milk 3 to 1 over the lower fat options. Five months later, students responded favorably to the surveys.

But what was really significant was this: the trial resulted in middle and high school aged students – teenagers! – choosing milk over less healthful competing beverages as revealed by a 65% increase in milk consumption and a 95% decrease in the amount of milk being discarded. Instead of taking the ‘served’ low-fat and fat-free milk (per USDA), throwing it away and buying something else, the students were choosing milk and drinking it!

Whole milk is also shown to be tolerated by many who claim to be lactose-intolerant as the amount of lactose is slightly less when more of the fat is retained, and the fat slows the rate of absorption of the lactose carbohydrate. This finding is both anecdotal and referenced in an official USDA Dietary Guidelines comment by Dr. Richard Theurer, adjunct professor in the Dept. of Nutrition Sciences at North Carolina State University. In his comment (2018 and 2020-25) to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, he supports a reversal of the DGA’s misguided recommendation that children over age 2 be offered only fat-free and low-fat milk (now required at schools and daycares) instead of the healthy choice of whole milk.

Does milk need to be reinvented with farmer checkoff funds in order to “get it to the kids in a style that they like” as DMI CEO Gallagher suggested during the Aug. 5 open mic call?

Or do students simply need the option of whole milk at school so they can choose what tastes good and is good for them?

Looking at year two of the checkoff-funded Cornell ‘Kids Milk’ project, the presenters own words offer a clue. They described a successful outcome “will reduce shipping and distribution costs for milk by reducing the number of deliveries and the need to separate refrigerated delivery to schools.” 

This look into the ‘Kids Milk’ future reveals the bottom line is the disassembly and extrusion of milk at finer and finer molecular levels to reinvent and build a beverage that fits the increasingly concentrated globalized supply chain of food transformation.

It’s really not about the kids, at all.

Author’s postscript: Think about this in the context of Coca Cola now owning 100% of the fairlife ultrafiltered milk brand and the potential for reducing school milk (‘kids milk’) to the equivalent of milk protein concentrate (MPC) added to sucrose or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) for shelf-stable concentrate reconstituted in soda-style — ‘just add water’ — beverage dispensers. Get the picture?

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