Pioneered in the 1960s, the UHT process exposes milk to temperatures of at least 138°C for two to four seconds, killing all potential bacteria. Milk that has undergone UHT processing has a shelf-life of six to nine months and does not require refrigeration. When compared to pasteurized milk, which requires refrigeration and still goes bad within two weeks of processing, UHT-processed milk has a better value proposition, particularly to producers and consumers in developing nations where access to refrigeration facilities is limited.
Over the decades, UHT milk processing technologies have improved – as have the products – giving consumers around the world a convenient, tasty, and nutritious liquid dairy milk option. According to Euromonitor International, around 34 percent of liquid milk consumption today is shelf-stable or UHT milk. This translates to a market size of about 111.5 billion liters in 2021, according to data from the IMARC group. The market research firm forecasts production to exhibit a CAGR of 4.9 % to reach 151.1 billion Liters by 2027.
Western Europe has for a long time dominated the UHT market followed by Latin America and Asia Pacific. In terms of growth markets, the story is slightly different: retail volumes are dipping in North America and Western Europe, whereas in Asia Pacific, Australia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, consumption of UHT milk is on the rise.
In some regions such as South Africa, UHT milk controls more than 53% of the market share, outstripping demand for chilled milk. Growing UHT milk popularity in regions outside Europe and the United States can be attributed to numerous factors. In Africa, the growing middle class that is also migrating to urban centers is the main driver of this meteoric rise.
In South Africa, for example, this group traditionally consumed UHT milk and continues to do so. It is a well-known phenomenon in the industry that once people develop a taste for either UHT or chilled milk; it typically remains throughout their lives. Erratic electricity supply and lack of fridges in most homes, especially in Africa, are expected to exacerbate the trouble of keeping chilled milk in homes and thus incentivize many to gravitate towards UHT milk. As scales tip toward Africa and Asia, Future Market Insights estimates the global UHT Milk market to reach a valuation of US$ 66.2 Bn in 2022. FMI forecasts the market to expand at a CAGR of 7.6% to reach US$ 137.7 Bn in sales by the end of 2032.
MORE THAN JUST STRAWBERRY AND VANILLA
Strawberry and vanilla have traditionally been the go-to flavors for many UHT dairy processors. To expand their consumer base, leading manufacturers of UHT milk are focusing on introducing sophisticated flavors, based on provenance, the use of premium ingredients, and market call.
Chocolate and Banana have become particularly popular in the recent past. A recent study by Innova Market Insights showed that chocolate was the number one flavor in dairy milk in the US, comprising 23% of all global launches. According to the market researcher, Banana remains in the top ten flavors, while mango and coconut fell from the top ten launches during the same period.
Coffee which increasingly became popular during the pandemic is also holding steady. It is particularly popular in the UK where it contributed most of the 8.8% growth – or £23.3m – in the £286.1m dairy drinks category in 2022, according to Kantar.
More flavors such as dark chocolate and maple are expected to continue coming to market as processors seek ways to expand their product lines. Other interesting flavors that could become more visible on the UHT milk aisle of supermarket shelves include wild-blue berry, orange, and salted caramel. This expansion is expected to further fuel the growth of the market which was estimated at US$49.3 Billion in 2021 by Imarc. The market research firm expects the market to reach US$75.0 Billion by 2027, exhibiting a growth rate (CAGR) of 7.4% during 2022-2027.
BOOSTING IMMUNITY WITH FORTIFICATION
Products with immunity-boosting claims are on the rise globally, and immune system health is likely to stay at the top of the public’s mind. Consequently, dairy beverages that support immunity have become immensely popular, especially since consumers perceive milk as a healthy drink as it inherently contains immuno-boosting nutrients such as essential amino acids, lactoferrin, α-lactalbumin, and immunoglobulin.
Consequently, dairy producers have introduced innovative fortified milk products to meet this demand. A good example is East Africa’s dairy giant Brookside which recently rolled out the Brookside Plus range of fortified UHT milk. One of the products is fortified with Vitamin A and D, the most well-known immunity-enhancing ingredients.
The other product in the range is rich in fiber to aid in digestive health. F&N Dairies Thailand introduced a new flavored UHT Milk is fortified with vitamins A, D, and C to support the immune system. In addition, Al Safi Arabia, claims its UHT-fortified milk, available in two variants for families and Women, has 3 times more Vitamin D than regular milk. The milk is also enriched with added Vitamins D, B9, B5, and B7 to boost immunity and vitality and strengthen bones.
THE METEORIC RISE OF LACTOSE-FREE
Lactose-free milk has been on the market for over 36 years now. Its uptake outside the united states remained low until recently. Tetra Pak attributes its popularity today after decades of obscurity to widespread food intolerance and allergies among consumers which are forcing them to switch to lactose-free dairy.
According to the milk processing technology supplier, this trend is only increasing in relevance. As an example, 27% of US consumers buy less dairy milk because they consume less lactose, the company said in its 2021 white paper on milk formulation.
In Africa where the technology is relatively new, dairy producers are jostling to have their lactose-free products take the pole position. In Kenya, almost all major dairies have a lactose-free variant of their flagship dairy brand. Bio Foods were among the early adopters followed by the KCC lactose-free which was launched with much fanfare in 2019 and later Brookside in 2022.
With more lactose-free products coming to market, dairy players are now choosing to supplement with vitamins and minerals to draw customers. Market participants have been compelled to concentrate on strong branding and enhanced advertising as a result of the fierce competition in the lactose-free dairy market.Even with the fierce competition among players, there is still room for growth. According to the latest market research complied by Reportlinker, the Global Lactose-Free Dairy Market size is expected to reach US$18.4 billion by 2028, rising at a market growth of 8.1% CAGR during the forecast period.
EXPANDING BEYOND SOYMILK
For decades, plant-based UHT milk was derived from soya milk. With vegetarian and flexitarian diets becoming popular for health and sustainability reasons, demand for plant-based dairy alternatives has sparked growth in the sector incentivizing manufacturers to expand their base ingredient from soy to other worthy plant-based sources such as almonds, oats, and coconuts. Other plant sources include hemp, pea, and peanut.
Almond milk which picked up pace in the previous decade has grown to become one of the top plant-based milk globally. In 2018, according to Mintel, sales of almond milk accounted for around 64% of the US plant milk market, while soy milk only had around 13% of the market share in the same year. Oat milk is also carving a share for itself.
Between 2018 and 2019, sales of oat milk skyrocketed from US$6 million to around US$40 million – largely thanks to brands like Oatly, Minor Figures, and Califia Farms. Plant-based milk is not milk, but consumer demand its tastes like what they get from cows or they jump ship. Formulating milk to taste like cow milk is not an easy affair but companies are making efforts towards achieving this.
Synergy Flavours recently launched two new flavors designed to replicate the taste of traditional milk. The new flavors are fresh milk and UHT milk, both of which will allow manufacturers to recreate the taste of dairy in plant-based milk alternatives. According to Synergy, the offerings are expected to provide the “dairy-type profile that consumers increasingly expect in plant-based milk, adding creaminess, indulgence, and sweetness across a range of bases, including soy, oat, and the pea”.
Beyond taste, there is also demand for plant-based dairy to be nutritionally close to animal milk. Manufacturers are now adding vitamins and minerals to them to make them have a similar nutritional value to cow’s milk. Although dogged with many controversies including issues around sustainability and nutritional profile when compared to animal dairy, the plant-based dairy sector still has a bright future. According to Facts and Factors, the Global Plant Based Dairy Products Market size was valued at around US$11.2 billion in 2021 and is estimated to grow to about US$31.5 billion by 2028, at a CAGR of approximately 10.5% between 2022 and 2028.
SUSTAINABILITY TAKES CENTER STAGE
Dairy, just like other sectors of the food industry, is taking sustainability seriously with major dairy companies announcing ambitious 2050 net zero goals. As a result, new UHT processing and packaging technologies have emerged to help dairy processors meet their sustainability goals.
Last year, Tetra Pak, one of the leading suppliers of UHT processing equipment, unveiled its new UHT 2.0 heating portfolio which is equipped with the revolutionary OneStep technology that is designed to simplify and make UHT processing more sustainable.
“By removing the pasteurization and intermediate storage steps, the processing time is shortened from as much as two days to just a few hours, and the operating costs are cut by up to 50 percent compared with conventional line solutions (without OneStep technology),” says Alejandro Cabal, Vice President, packaging solutions at Tetra Pak.
Tetra Pak also recently launched the E3/Speed Hyper which features a massive capacity of up to 40,000 portion packs per hour (or 11 packs every second). According to the company, the equipment’s increased capacity can reduce manufacturers’ operational costs by up to 10 percent and also represents a low-carbon alternative to aseptic PET – since electricity consumption and carbon footprint are both five times lower than for aseptic PET lines.
On the packaging side, Tetra Pak has a new solution in the form of a six-layer called Tetra Brik Aseptic 1000 Edge which is made of over 80% plant-based materials. Tetra Pak said this sustainable packaging solution, with plant-based caps and layers, can deliver up to 23% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to a standard package of the same shape and size.
Its competitor SIG also recently launched aseptic carton packs with no aluminum layer. Dubbed SIGNATURE 100, the aseptic carton packs are made from up to 82% FSC-certified renewable paperboard, sourced from sustainably managed forests. By removing the need for an aluminum foil barrier layer, SIG said the new packaging trimmed the carbon footprint of SIG’s standard packaging material by 27%.
Milk containers with tethered caps are also starting to emerge for both food safety and environmental reasons. Tetra Pak, the market leader in UHT milk packaging has several solutions ranging from the HeliCap 26 Pro to LightWing 30 where the caps are designed to remain attached to the UHT container even after opening. This is designed to promote greater recyclability of these caps which in most cases get disengaged from their containers and thus not submitted for recycling.
A GOD SENT INNOVATION
Now in its fourth decade, UHT milk has contributed greatly to the food safety and quality of milk globally. Its shelf-stable advantage has made it possible for milk, a highly perishable product, to be consumed in regions as remote as Kalukwakerith village in the northernmost part of Kenya. Its aseptic nature has guaranteed the safety of milk which is normally susceptible to a plethora of bacteria including pathogenic ones such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Clostridium botulinum. Innovations, particularly around flavors, plant-based milk, and packaging have emerged over time to make the product even more aligned with changing consumer needs. These innovations are also a testament that the product is relevant for today’s consumer. They also go a long way in future-proofing UHT so that it can continue being available and relevant for the unpredictable consumer of tomorrow.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Issue 55 of Food Business Africa magazine. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE