Milk facing soybean innovation battle

By Neil Merrett

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags New zealand Milk

The dairy industry will have to step up to the challenge of matching ongoing developments in soybeans as a replacement for a number of milk-based products and ingredients, according to one New Zealand dairy supplier.

John Penno, head of milk producer the Synlait Group, told delegates at this year's Horizons Livestock Sciences Conference that the increasingly efficient production of soy products could make the product more effective than dairy in certain applications.

"As soy products are being developed to more and more resemble dairy products, there is a danger that it can become a substitute for most [goods in the segment],"​ he stated.

Some commentators believe that reluctance in certain markets over the possible genetically modified status of soybeans, as well as the complex nutritional nature of milk offer a strong counterpoint to Penno's fears.

Niche benefits

However, the dairy boss says that the industry must adopt an effective long-term strategy to ensure that milk-derived products offer a niche area of unique functional benefits to the consumer, or face losing ground.

"This is a 20 year strategy. We need to exploit the bundle of benefits that is uniquely New Zealand – things that we take for granted like a healthy environment, healthy lifestyles and healthy and safe food,"​ he said. "All of these attributes have to be wrapped up in real products with substance."

Dr Kerst Stelwagen, section manager for the New Zealand-based research group AgResearch, told that he believed the dairy industry was well positioned to compete with further developments in soy.

Stelwagen said that, while the value-added potential of milk remains largely unexplored, the complex nature of the liquid was full of readily available 'building blocks' for human nutrition.

"We, at AgResearch, recently published the (first) milk proteome of minor milk proteins and identified at least 90 different peptides and proteins,"​ he stated. "For many of these, the biological function is still unknown, [but for] others we do have an idea of their role and they play key roles in immune function, cardiovascular health, and bone health, to mention just a few."

The section manager accepted that soybean protein does have uses as a replacement for some dairy applications, particularly in cheaper commodity areas like use in cheese flavours for alternatives to pizza toppings.

Stelwagen said that while formulators may find it possible to replicate flavour profiles of milk with soybean, matching the potential nutrition benefits was different. He claimed that milk, like blood, was extremely complex and difficult to replicate.

"A lot of effort has gone into making artificial blood and this has proven impossible, one must not forget that biologically milk's role is to nourish the young,"​ said Stelwagen. "That is to provide a complete diet with all the essential nutrients - minerals, vitamins, proteins, sugars, and fats - as the young can not collect, chew and digest solid foods initially."

ArResearch says that it is this natural complexity that makes milk-derived products so profitable in terms of volume added benefits.

The researchers used the example of calcium supplements, which it said while boosting intake of the mineral may not be as beneficial a source as milk proteins. Calcium, according to Stelwagen, is much more 'biologically available' in milk protein, ensuring more of the mineral is used in the body and not excreted.


One recent concern facing milk production, particularly on New Zealand farms, has been the issue of environmental sustainability, both in terms of the carbon footprint of livestock and the production process.

However, Stelwagen claims that soy manufacture also created sustainability issues, with large monocultures of soybeans creating problems of erosion and deforestation.

An additional concern for the consumer was likely to be the issue of genetically modified (GM) commodities and ingredients.

"At present one would be hard pressed to find GM-free soy as a commodity product. Is this a problem?"​ asked Stelwagen. "That depends entirely on the consumer market."

Like New Zealand, within the EU, GM use continues to be met with opposition from both legislators and campaigners over claims that the long-term health impacts of consumption are not known. The EU also requires processors to label products with more than 0.9 per cent GM ingredients, a major barrier for industry.

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