‘We are open and looking wide’: Senior VP of Valio R&D talks market opportunities and empowering small-batch infant formula makers

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT

Getty/Image Source
Getty/Image Source

Related tags Infant formula Infant nutrition China Milk powder Skim milk powder

DairyReporter speaks to Harri Kallioinen, senior vice-president of the R&D arm of Finnish dairy group Valio, on the company's new dry blend-optimized solution and what market opportunities exist beyond the realms of infant nutrition.

It’s been a turbulent time for milk powder producers. Skim and whole milk powder prices took a tumble in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and despite a positive trend since August, the average global SMP and WMP prices remain below the levels seen 12 months ago. Despite this volatility, the market remains on a growth trajectory thanks to a breadth of opportunities across applications from beverages to bakery, nutrition, confectionery and more.

Finland-based dairy group Valio recently introduced a dry blend-optimized powder, Valio Prime SMP, designed to offer infant milk formula makers a more straightforward production process. The product targets small and medium-sized manufacturers due to being easy to incorporate into existing dry-blend manufacturing processes. According to the company, many new companies are focusing on dry blending infant milk formula rather than investing in wet-blend production facilities.

 At the same time, the powder provides what Valio calls a high degree of microbiological purity since quality standards for this type of product are more stringent. Addressing this quality claim, product developer Christina Maksimow said that SMP Prime is made in a new production line at the company’s Lapinlahti facility from milk sourced from Valio farms and complies ‘with the absolute strictest monitoring standards.’

“The idea in the dry blending is that at least part of the ingredients needed in the formula are added after the drying step,” explained. “Traditionally, the ingredient needs to be dried before being added, so that’s a control point right there and way to remove the harmful bacteria from the product. But in the case of the dry blend, because it’s all in a powder form, it's not possible to do any kind of heat treatment at that stage, which is why a very strict limit is needed.”

Besides appealing to smaller-sized infant formula producers with a solution that can be immediately implemented in manufacture, the Valio R&D executive said there are other reasons for developing this type of product. “In some markets, there are not all the ingredients in liquid form and it’s not a good idea from a safety point of view to dissolve an ingredient, then dry it again. And for certain ingredients, it's beneficial to add in a dry blend because it can affect the heat treatment and then the drying step can affect the quality of or the level of certain micronutrients.”

There’s also better scope to create small-batch products through dry blend manufacture versus wet blend. “There is a growing market for specialist infant formula where batch sizes can be quite small, and so dry blend-optimized powders are more efficient to use.”

China’s fertility rate is closely monitored by infant milk formula makers, and Valio, which has relationships with major infant milk powder manufacturers in the regions, is no different. The company also exports ingredients that can be used in infant nutrition products, bakery and confectionery products and ice creams and also offers a range of lactose-free powders. However, new requirements around minimum and maximum nutrient values, lactose content and a ban on fructose and sucrose has made China one of the world’s most heavily-regulated markets. “In the Chinese market, new legislation is being implemented,” Kallioinen reflected,” and it's clear that the birth rates in China have been declining in the last five years, so this is something that definitely affects the infant powder market.”

Asked if the company considers other application niches for its ingredient products in China, he said Valio was ‘actively working’ in the area of active nutrition. “We already launched a product designed to support healthy ageing - the Valio Eila Nutri F+ lactose free milk powder, which contains vitamins, minerals and phospholipids. We are open and looking wide to identify other opportunities, for example for the younger age group and for more special ingredients that are typically used in infant nutrition products. Allergies are also on the rise globally so there is room for ingredient innovation there.”

He added that high-protein products are also of interest to the company. “I believe the high-protein trend has been present in Finland for many, many years, but I think we are now seeing it in many other markets too, especially outside of Europe. So that’s maybe another interesting area for us to explore.”

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