Why the “D” in Non-Dairy?

Summer 2023

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers the following definitions for the noun dairy: the department of farming or of a farm that is concerned with the production of milk, butter, and cheese; milk from a cow or other domestic animal (such as a goat); and food (such as ice cream, cheese, or yogurt) made primarily of or from milk.

Today, a dairy is far more than a producer of milk products. If we were to explore a modern-day dairy, a far more accurate definition would be: an establishment that processes milk; milk products, such as ice cream, buttermilk and yogurt shakes; non-dairy alternative frozen desserts; non-dairy novelties, such as ices and popsicles; and non-dairy beverages, such as juices, fruit punch and tea.

Unquestionably, liquid milk production is the bread and butter of a successful dairy plant. Juices and teas are suitable side dishes and, of course, the pièce de resistance is ice cream – all varieties.

Ice cream is defined as a sweet flavored frozen food containing cream or butterfat and usually eggs. To be classified as ice cream, the frozen mixture must contain 12% milkfat. Traditional ice cream might combine assorted flavors, fruits, nuts, variegates and toppings. According to the protocols of ice cream manufacturing, recipes containing reduced milkfat cannot be called ice cream; reduced-fat ice cream varieties are classified as frozen dairy desserts.

Dairy-Free Alternatives

There is a burgeoning area of frozen desserts that have claimed noteworthy prominence in a dairy’s product portfolio. Let’s enter into the world of no-ndairy ice cream alternatives or – as the strict rules and regulations would say – alternative frozen desserts.

In the world of manufacturing, a company strives for “good manufacturing practices,” also referred to as GMP. In the world of consumerism, the GMP formula is: if the consumer wants it, we will find a way to produce it, and produce it well.

Creative new product development in the dairy industry is being spurred by the panoply of health and dietary challenges within the general public. Manufacturers are seeking to address the various dietary restrictions of their consumers, be it intolerance to lactose or gluten, or allergies and sensitivities to commonly used raw materials, such as peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, sesame seeds or nightshades. Additionally, they are striving to meet the needs of consumers who are passionately vegan and who abstain strictly from milk, eggs and any items derived from these ingredients. Nevertheless, what these consumers all share is a desire to have the option to indulge in a mouthwatering dessert without suffering the consequences of health concerns – or a guilty conscience.

From Dairy to Non-Dairy: How the Magic Happens

How do manufacturers go about formulating delicious alternative dairy-free ice cream to closely mimic the dairy original? Let’s start by analyzing the formulation of basic ice cream.

Classic dairy ice cream is produced by combining natural dairy ingredients (milk and heavy cream) with eggs, sugar and flavors, and binding them together with an ice cream stabilizer and emulsifiers. What substitutions are made to create non-dairy ice cream “equivalents”?

Milk – Depending upon the alternative recipe, either rice milk, soy milk, coconut milk, almond milk, cashew milk or oat milk is the milk replacement. The increasing prevalence of many different “milks” is due to different dietary restrictions. Some consumers of non-dairy products may tolerate rice, for example, but not soy, so there are now alternatives within the alternatives.

Milkfat – Coconut oil replaces the heavy cream as the alternative ice cream’s fat component.

Sugar – For those who have to restrict their sugar intake, erythritol or sorbitol is substituted. (Lately, the healthfulness of erythritol has been questioned and sucralose is being substituted instead.)

Flavors – Flavoring is the most critical alternative ice component. Flavors are extremely versatile and serve multiple purposes, the primary one being to enhance a product’s taste. Since the combination of coconut oil and non-dairy milks have absolutely no similarity to the delicious taste of fresh cream and milk (and may even deliver an “off” taste), a quality flavor, like vanilla, will certainly mask the coconut oil base to ensure that the product tastes like a quality vanilla. Peanut butter flavor is a good masking flavor as is cherry chocolate chunk. With quality flavors you get quality results.

Stabilizers – These give a product “mouth feel,” thickness and structure so it will mirror the “mouth feel” of regular dairy ice cream. In the flavor and stabilizer world, the most unlikely ingredient components create many award-winning, authentic-tasting products in a surfeit of food applications. Alternative ice cream is no exception.

Emulsifiers – These make sure that everything is mixed properly and stays that way. The most natural emulsifier is egg yolk and the most kosher-sensitive are mono- and diglycerides and polysorbate 80. These emulsifiers are used in both dairy and non-dairy alternative ice cream.

So, Why the “D”?

There are various reasons why a non-dairy ice cream will display a “D” dairy designation. Here is a brief overview of each.

Ingredients – Often a dairy will use the same ice cream stabilizers and award-winning flavors for all of its ice cream bases – both dairy and alternative. If it works, why substitute? Because it is conceivable that the ice cream stabilizer used in both the dairy and non-dairy ice cream is actually “Kosher Dairy.” The dairy component of the flavor or stabilizer might not compromise the industry definition of dairy (as is the case with “non-dairy” coffee creamer). Although the dairy or coffee creamer industry doesn’t consider sodium caseinate to be a dairy ingredient, kashrus does, hence the “D” on the label when the ingredient panel lists caseinate.

Processing – ‘D’ detection doesn’t end with ingredients. Raw materials have to be processed into a finished product. As we’ve discussed, alternative ice cream is produced in a dairy that processes and produces dairy ice cream. While every effort is taken to ensure that there are no dairy contaminants in the non-dairy ice cream production, there still may be many kosher “D” pitfalls, especially if the manufacturer does not have a strict pareve koshering program.

Holding tanks – Even if all the flavors, stabilizers and emulsifiers are 100% pareve, dairies typically share common holding tanks. As the name implies, a holding tank holds liquid ice cream emulsions awaiting chilling and filling. Ice cream holding tanks are not heated and it is common to use the same holding tanks for both dairy and alternative ice cream batches after a cold wash out. Since it is possible for a liquid product to be held for over 24 hours in a dairy holding tank, a “DE” (Dairy Equipment) or “D” (Dairy) designation will appear on the non-dairy product label.[1]

Pasteurization – From holding tank to chiller and filler, the liquid recipe has to be pasteurized. There are many pasteurization formats: plate, tubular or batch. Regardless of the format used, when the pasteurizer pasteurizes dairy products, there must be a clean-in-place protocol (CIP) to clean between dairy and non-dairy products. CIP is not equivalent to automatic kosherization. If there is not a strict kosherization program in place which requires monitoring with strict hashgacha, the CIP of the pasteurizer cannot substitute for kosherization and change the status of the tank from “Kosher Dairy” to “Kosher Pareve.” A dairy may not be willing to challenge the pasteurizer with high koshering temperatures, nor to put a bittering agent like Bitrex into a boiler if the steam is recycled. Furthermore, many CIP systems today are computerized, and one cannot override the program.

As we can clearly see from all of these concerns, the product is certainly non-dairy but the “D” must prevail.

Further, manufacturers must be educated about the advantages of Kosher Pareve vs. Kosher Dairy or Kosher DE. It is not only a marketing benefit but a real service to the kosher consumer who doesn’t want to purchase a “DE” or “D” pareve dessert alternative. There needs to be a willingness on the part of the manufacturer to reap the benefits of a truly pareve product. However, even with the best intentions, if a recipe cannot be modified or a pasteurizer is computerized and cannot be reprogrammed for kosherization, the “D” will prevail.

Of course, we are blessed with many, many pareve options, and with consumer demand for quality pareve products on the rise – in tandem with food allergies and sensitivities – mark my word, the “D” will soon morph into a “P”!

[1] Some certification agencies don’t use the DE designation at all and mark all product with a D whether they are truly dairy or just produced on dairy equipment.