What is the Process for Making Milk Protein Concentrate?

Food science is a field overflowing with groundbreaking research, hard-working scientists, and continually evolving innovations. As we understand more about the actual contents of the foods we consume, new possibilities become clear — and through experimentation, new product opportunities often appear. For many years, chemical processing methods were the only way to reliably separate proteins such as casein from liquid milk. Intensive, environmentally challenging, and often producing less than the best results; chemical precipitation is no longer the only means of separating milk proteins. 

Today, milk protein concentrate, or MPC, continues to grow in the marketplace as an important ingredient in everything from cheesemaking processes to sports drinks and exercise supplements. Unlike caseinates, MPC contains both forms of milk proteins, whey and casein, along with all 9 essential amino acids. It’s easy to see why this substance would be so popular for nutritional applications, especially when one considers that it is possible to produce MPC with a protein content as high as 90 percent on a dry matter basis. 

At Idaho Milk Products, how do we make the transition between milk and milk protein concentrate? The unique production process behind these substances leads to their purity and wholesomeness and help to make them more palatable for human consumption when formulated into a product. Let’s consider how the manufacturing steps play out and why it all matters.

The Basic Manufacturing Process for MPC

To get to milk protein concentrate or isolate, producers must first start with fresh skim milk, which today is usually the product of centrifugal separation processes. After obtaining the skim milk, it must undergo a pasteurization process to make it safe for consumption. At this point, the milk is ready for processing. In caseinate production, this is the stage at which pH changes would take place through the addition of acids and other chemicals to cause the desired proteins to settle out of solution. This method is too harsh and destructive to produce MPC.

Instead, MPC production uses a gentler method that occurs at lower temperatures. Called ultrafiltration, it is a physical separation process rather than a chemical one. By pushing the skim milk at high pressure against a very fine filter, unwanted particles such as lactose and water pass through the filter. The protein molecules (and in some productions, fat molecules as well) are too large to fit through the gaps in the filter and thus remain trapped on one side. The resulting product, after undergoing a thorough drying stage, is milk protein concentrate. “Milk protein isolate” is another term for this product which has no formal definition, but colloquially refers to a powder with a 90 percent+ protein concentration. 

Why is This Process Better Than Chemical Precipitation?

There are several good reasons to consider ultrafiltration a superior process to precipitation. First and foremost, there are no chemicals added to the milk which denature proteins and ultimately impact the flavor and mouthfeel of products formulated with caseinates. Second, the lack of chemicals is also more environmentally friendly. There are fewer waste products and less cleanup. However, there is a third benefit to the process that is even more important: wholesomeness.

In other words, MPC is whole milk protein — both casein and whey. Typically, chemical processes can only concentrate one or the other. In milk protein concentrate powders, though, both whey and casein are present in virtually the same form as found in regular milk. Why does that matter?

The Advantages Of and Uses For Milk Protein Concentrate

One of the key perks of using MPC is the fact that it is more nutritionally complex. Whey protein is highly enriched with essential amino acids the body cannot make, and it digests very quickly, providing the body with a quick boost of these building blocks. Casein, on the other hand, digests more slowly and provides a time-release supply of amino acids. The result is a more well-rounded product that offers better nutritional outcomes. 

When fortifying food and beverage products with protein, the presence of both proteins provides a better formulation. At the same time, the bland flavor of most MPCs ensures that there are no “off flavors” that need to be covered up or masked using additional ingredients such as flavor-masking agents. This helps provide cleaner labels and more appealing consumer products, many times at a lower cost.

Learning More About MPC

Although milk protein concentrates are an established product today, innovation and research continue. The potential benefits of consuming MPC continue to undergo study as scientists aim better to understand the effects that proteins have on the body. Some evidence suggests there may be positive health benefits to consuming milk protein regularly, though more insight is necessary to draw any conclusions with certainty.

Want to know more about milk protein concentrate production, or to start a discussion about how to blend MPCs into product formulations for effective results? Contact us at Idaho Milk Products today for more.