Plant additives could open up whole new avenues of product development for functional milk drinks, said Dr Michael de Vrese, of Germany's Federal Research Centre for Nutrition and Food, at this week's Drinktec expo in Munich.
De Vrese said the use of plant additives in dairy, which he calls 'phytolactics', offers the chance to add a range of nutrients found in plants to milk, including potassium, magnesium, vitamins C and E, medium chain fatty acids and antioxidants.
He pointed out that Unilever's Becel/Flora brand already uses plant-derived phytosterols in its Pro-Activ product range, including semi-skimmd milk and spreads.
Scientific research has shown that phytosterols can lower a consumer's bad cholesterol by reducing its absorption by the body.
Such plant sterols are becoming increasingly popular among producers looking to further embrace consumer health trends. Soft drinks maker Coca-Cola recently got clearance from the UK to add phytosterols to fruit juices, setting up the possibility of cholesterol-lowering juices in British supermarkets.
De Vrese now believes that dairy producers stand to benefit from putting more research and development funds into plant additives more generally as they look to add value to the sector and keep up with health-conscious consumers.
He also said functional milk drinks need to work harder on their image. "Milk has a reputation for being healthy more than other drinks but is seen as being more for children and older people.
"The question for functional milk is: how can it have a new image so that a certain lifestyle can be linked to these products."
There are signs that functional milk drinks are beginning to edge their way into the mainstream in Western Europe. US firm Bravo! recently signed a deal to get its vitamin-enriched milk drinks into the UK's third biggest supermarket, Sainsbury's. Coca-Cola's bottling arm also recently signed a distribution deal with Bravo! in the US.
De Vrese added that dairy firms could also use the growing functional market for whey, a by-product from dairy processing, to delve further into new product categories.
Whey is known to contain a number of nutrients, including calcium and water-soluble vitamins. And, while a whey drink would have a poor taste, a drink containing 50 per cent whey and 50 per cent juice could provide new functional opportunities for firms.
De Vrese, however, warned dairy producers that 'tampering' with milk was still a very delicate issue with consumers.
He said milk enjoyed a naturally healthy image and "some people are not really happy if something as valuable as milk is played around with".
He also said that functional products, although not yet legally defined, should still meet general minimum requirements, including: the food must be recognisable as a 'normal' product (eg, cheese, milk); it must still be consumed as part of an everyday diet; and "it must have scientifically proven benefits beyond the normal nutritional benefits" of similar products.
De Vrese said a source from global food producer Nestlé told him that the firm had drawn up three main rules for defining a functional food.
These were that the functional ingredients must have a scientifically proven health claim, that the product posed no health risk and, currently being devised, that the product had no unhealthy qualities, such as high salt or fat content.
De Vrese added that it was still generally forbidden to claim a product may directly prevent a particular disease, although risk reduction claims will be tolerated in the European Union.
Instead, firms are expected to emphasise how a product may improve certain bodily functions.