A Fonterra Co-operative milk protein chemist, with a distinguished career in dairy science spanning more than forty years, has been awarded the world’s top dairy honour for his contribution to the industry.
Dr Lawrie Creamer is the first New Zealander to be awarded the International Dairy Federation (IDF) Award, which he shares with Professor Pierpaolo Resmini from the Department of Food Science and Technology at the State University of Milan (Italy).
The awards were announced today by the IDF at its annual conference in Melbourne in association with the Global Dairy Summit.
Dr Creamer, Principal Research Scientist at Fonterra’s marketing and innovation division in Palmerston North, joined the then Dairy Research Institute (N.Z.), as a protein chemist in 1963 after graduating with a PhD from the University of Canterbury.
At the time, says Dr Creamer, the New Zealand dairy industry was facing a major challenge – the prospect of the United Kingdom joining the European Economic Community and the loss of its previously secure market for dairy products.
This prompted a substantial change of direction for the Dairy Research Institute, with the addition of a team of internationally trained scientists and technologists to build the science and technology needed to diversify into new markets with products that suited those markets.
“The only significant exports in 1960 were a salted butter and a Cheddar cheese to feed post-War Britain,” says Dr Creamer.
“It was a bit of a gamble to invest in a nucleus of young research scientists but the dairy industry’s survival depended on the development of new and often unique products and techniques and it paid off.”
After undertaking postgraduate work from 1964 -1966 at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, Dr Creamer returned to the New Zealand Dairy Research Institute (NZDRI) to lead a research programme on the chemistry of milk proteins and their interactions. This was to place him at the cutting edge of dairy research worldwide.
Dr Creamer’s early work led to many improvements in the manufacture of traditional dairy products such as cheese and milk powders. A major focus was to influence the industry to manufacture consistently high quality Cheddar cheese and to develop a range of non-Cheddar cheeses. His innovative studies on the relationship of texture and flavour in cheese helped define its compositional characteristics.
Dr Creamer attracted a group of scientists and the team tackled a number of the basic questions in dairy chemistry such as, “What happens when milk is heated?” and “How does that impact on a product?”
The team’s fundamental work on milk protein structures, which has not been surpassed, led to the award of the Miles-Marschall Award in 1984, and established the New Zealand–led team as the pre-eminent research group in this area.
Likewise, he and his team have led the way in research into the heat-induced changes to milk and the aggregation of the proteins in whey. Whey proteins, an important byproduct of cheese or casein manufacture, once regarded as a suitable only for animal feed, are now used in a range of food products.
Another line of research was into the hydrolysis of proteins, as one of the processes used to make and to mature cheese, leading to an understanding of the relationship between cheese composition, texture and flavour.
A separate area of work, which examined how dairy farmers should be paid for their milk, resulted in a system of payment based on kilograms of milk fat and protein solids.
Since 1990, when he was appointed Principal Research Scientist at the NZDRI, Dr Creamer has focused more intensively on the structure of the major whey protein, beta-lactoglobulin, and the effect on it of heat and its ability to bind vitamins.
Dr Creamer says his later work reflects the separation of protein science into the more practical studies on cheese, milk protein products and milk powder, and the examination of the more fundamental basis of the interactions between the milk proteins that will drive development of value-add products with the characteristics major dairy customers want.
Recent research, in collaboration with scientists from Massey University’s Riddet Centre and Professors Lindsay Sawyer and Paul Barlow at Edinburgh University, showed that at high temperature the structure of beta-lactoglobulin changes, forming a new protein, which reacts with other smaller milk proteins. This reaction is the basis for the heat stability of milk powders and slower coagulation of heated milks.
Another project is NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy) studies of water molecules to increase understanding of the effects of flow on the redistribution of components in cheese-like substances in collaboration with Professor Paul Callaghan at Victoria University’s McDiarmid Institute. All three projects are partly funded by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.
In addition to his own research, Dr Creamer has supervised many Masters and PhD students, providing scientific training for those who will carry on dairy-oriented research in the future. He is widely published and cited author in scientific journals and an editor on some of the leading international dairy journals.
As well as his latest IDF honour, Dr Creamer, a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry, is the recipient of some 14 awards in recognition of his immense contribution to dairy science. In 1961, he received the New Zealand Dairy Research Institute Fellowship, which enabled him to travel to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for advanced study, setting the path for his 40-year career.
In 1973, he was awarded the ICI New Zealand Ltd Prize “for outstanding achievement in chemical research” and in 1984 the Miles-Marschall International ADSA Award by the American Dairy Science Association. Dr Creamer was the youngest recipient of the Award at that time, which recognises those working outside North America for research that leads to better dairy products.
In 1995, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, the highest New Zealand science accolade and in 1999 the Society presented him with the RJ Scott Medal in Engineering Sciences and Technologies. He is married with three sons and a daughter and, in keeping with his strong community service ethic is a Justice of the Peace.