New LED lights that are being installed in milk display cases across the country do more than just reduce energy bills—they also help milk taste better, according to research conducted by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), Blacksburg, Va.
That’s because the exposure to certain light changes the flavor profile of milk.
“We want to help figure out ways to return to the fresh taste of milk that our grandparents experienced when it came straight from the dairy,” says Susan Duncan, a professor of food science and technology in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, an associate director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and an affiliated researcher with the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “Milk is delicious and nutritious, and we want to find ways to protect both of those characteristics to help the industry and provide an even better product to consumers.”
Milk consumption has been decreasing for several decades, and the lighting used in retail display cases that change the taste of milk may be one of the factors for this decline, says Duncan.
One of the nutrients in milk — riboflavin — oxidizes when it is exposed to fluorescent lights. This reaction not only causes the taste to change, but can also reduce the nutritional content of milk.
Duncan’s tests show that when milk is stored in the traditional translucent plastic jugs, these reactions can take place in as little as two hours. Opaque milk packaging that protects riboflavin and other nutrients from lighting helps to deliver that fresh, sweet, rich taste.
Duncan conducted a series of tests at the Virginia Tech Sensory Evaluation Laboratory that showed the new LED lights leave milk with a more satisfactory taste that consumers prefer over milk that has been exposed to fluorescent lights.
Researchers found that while the new LED lights reduce negative profiles, there is still work to be done in packaging to ensure milk tastes like it did back when a milkman delivered fresh pasteurized milk to your doorstep.
If the traditional HDPE translucent jugs are used, milk is more likely to undergo oxidation and have its flavor changed. But, tests show that when light-blocking pigments in HDPE or plastic PET containers were used, the flavor wasn’t changed as dramatically and consumers thought the milk tasted fresh.
“The research that is being done around this new lighting gives us momentum to explore other ways that we can preserve the natural taste of milk,” Duncan says.