Technology is at the forefront of this research, which includes DNA studies and investigating tiny cheese samples called microCheese.
Eva Düsterhöft is a food technologist and senior project manager in dairy and cheese technology at Dutch-based food technology company NIZO Food Research.
She told DairyReporter that NIZO is a fully independent company providing global contract research services for the food and ingredient industry.
Changes to independence
However, at the beginning of its 68-year history, it was an institute that worked exclusively for the Dutch dairy industry.
“In the last 20 years, we changed the structure and our links, and we became independent and expanded our activities and expertise further than just dairy,” she said.
“Today I would say 50% of our projects are in the dairy industry, and are now worldwide.”
She said NIZO provides contract research and consultancy, process and product development services, and small-scale and test productions.
Interaction with customers
Düsterhöft said her areas of expertise are in cheese and cheese technology, most specifically in the functionality of cheeses, texture, processability and melting properties.
“As a project manager, I'm leading projects - I'm the contact person for our customers, translating their needs to what we can offer and what we need to develop. We co-create with our customers.
“It's a close relationship in most projects, meaning it's not just that we get a project and then our researchers will sit down and work for two years and come back with the results at the end. During the research we interact very closely.”
She added that projects can differ between those that last for two or three years, where NIZO deals with large consortia, to short-term troubleshooting projects, or product development projects, which have to sometimes be done in a couple of months.
Düsterhöft said that there are always changes and developments in the cheese industry.
“I'm not a trend watcher, but generally there is a lot of research going on and development in the area of starter cultures, and the composing products, which comprise several different lactic acid bacterial strains which have their own specific metabolism and which work together in the cheese.
“This field is certainly evolving. So we understand more of these cultures, secondary cultures, starter cultures, what they do and how they do it together, and how to make them work on a constant level in cheese.”
She said molecular diagnostic tools are more and more integrated into cheese research and cheese development.
“If you want to analyze the microbiota in a cheese, before you would have to make an extract and put that on an agar plate, and wait and see what grows, and you were very dependent on whether or not you had good nutrients in your medium and the bacteria were in good condition so that they could grow,” Düsterhöft said.
“There are a lot of cultures that, under certain conditions, wouldn't grow, you would never see them. If you use molecular diagnostic tools, like DNA sequencing, you can recover all the genetic potential that is in the cheese at any time.”
Düsterhöft said the more scientists understand about how cultures interact, the more they can apply this to cheesemaking, and to other fermented foods, including beyond the dairy industry.
“We learn how the cultures interact and work together, how processing conditions influence the growth of the cultures. You can exploit that when you understand it and study it better.
“You can construct the composition of the different strains that you put together to create a certain flavor or texture or taste, and it helps you to get your production on a constant level. When you change, even by accident, your processing conditions, this may have an effect on the growth of the cultures that you put in the cheese milk.
“One day one of the types can grow faster or more than another one, and you get a different flavor profile.”
Modeling through microCheeses
NIZO can work on modeling the behavior of cheeses through very small-scale microtiters. The resulting ‘products’ are called microCheeses.
“It's a cheesemaking system on a microtiter plate, with 96 small cheese vats. We can produce cheeses of different types, such as Gouda-type, Cheddar-type and Swiss-type, and you can study so many different strains, different conditions, different salting levels - you can run hundreds of these studies in parallel.
“Once you've finished you cannot taste the cheese and have a sensory evaluation, but you can analytically assess how the cultures have grown. You can look into the composition of the cheeses, what the flavor profile is.
“When this was developed a couple of years ago here at NIZO, we looked into the translation to large scale, and we saw that with these miniature cheeses, which are 200mg each, the flavor profile matches very well the flavor profile that you get in large scale cheeses.”
Another area of research where NIZO can use its microcheese system is to screen for cultures producing bacteriocines or other functional metabolites and to assess their efficacy under varying cheese-making conditions.
Different cheeses, different properties
Düsterhöft said NIZO also works on cream cheeses, the yogurt area, quark, and cottage cheese.
These, however, react differently, she said.
“You are aiming for very different profiles and functionalities, most of all, so in terms of melting, in terms of consistency, a cream cheese, you want to have it smooth, non-gritty, and not too acidic, and not too brittle, and you don't want to have whey release. That's a very complex interplay of processing conditions, raw material and also starter culture.”
Developments in membrane filtration
Membrane filtration is another area of growth when it comes to cheese research.
“To make a feta-type cheese, you can make a concentrate first, so by filtering and concentrating the milk through microfiltration, and then you can make a cheese from that,” she explained.
“Normal cheese making means coagulating milk and then you have to remove the whey. With a full-membrane filtration process, you would first remove the appropriate amount of whey, adjust lactose and mineral composition of the retentate and then coagulate the product.”
Düsterhöft said that her colleagues at NIZO can run mini-membrane units, and evaluate different types of membrane, flow rate, and fouling.
“We do have calculation models that we can apply to translate these data to forecasts of operational costs, for example.”
Whey quality issues
Düsterhöft said whey quality is an important issue for the cheese industry nowadays.
“The biggest value for whey is if you can process it to whey protein concentrate, or isolate, which is used in infant formulas or other food areas.”
But she added that in such industries as infant formula, some ingredients are no longer acceptable.
“So in our Continental cheeses, often sodium or potassium nitrate is added as a processing aid. It is used to control the risk of butyric acid fermentation in the cheese. But it's not desired if you want to use this whey in formulas. So we have to find alternative ways to control the shelf life.
“Technology is one part, so bactofugation is done, this is a way of centrifuging milk and removing the spores of the microorganisms, but that isn't 100% effective.
“But also in the starter area are cultures that produce, in situ, natural anti-microbials. Some of these components are very effective in protecting from butyric acid fermentation.”
Filtering before production
One solution is performing the filtration before, rather than after, cheese production.
“If you can membrane filtrate your milk at the forefront of cheese production, that will give you very clean whey with native whey proteins,” Düsterhöft said.
She said that to apply this technology for a wider range of semi-hard cheeses and cheese products, however, still requires substantial amounts of development and research work.
NIZO in the community
Düsterhöft said that in addition to their website and newsletters, NIZO is present at several exhibitions throughout the year. In November, NIZO is organizing a NIZO Dairy Conference Asia-Pacific, together with Elsevier.
The conference will focus on milk protein ingredients.
There are also NIZO-led courses available to those in the industry.
“We organize courses and seminars; a typical course, which is held every year, is on the technology of spray drying and evaporation.
“Every two or three years, we have a cheese technology training course, the next edition of this being in October this year. Such courses are hands-on, and include hands-on case studies, to transfer basic knowledge and present new developments in the field.”