Microstructural Changes in Casein Supramolecules During Acidification of Skim Milk

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Journal of Dairy Science



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Pasteurized skim milk was acidified using different levels of glucono-δ-lactone at 10, 20, 30, and 40°C to give slow, medium, and fast rates of acidification. Milk coagulation was monitored by measuring turbidity and curd firmness, and microstructural changes during acidification were observed on glutaraldehyde-fixed, agar-solidified milk samples using transmission electron microscopy. Rate of acidification had little influence on changes observed during acidification, except at 10°C. At 40°C, the casein supramolecules were spherical throughout acidification, whereas at lower temperatures they became progressively more ragged in appearance. All of the milks gelled at the same pH (pH 4.8), as measured by curd firmness, whereas increases in turbidity, assumed to be brought about by an increase in number of light-scattering particles, were observed to start at about pH 5.2 to 5.4. As the milk was acidified, aggregates of loosely entangled proteins were observed, presumably originating from proteins that had dissociated from the casein supramolecules. These aggregates were often as large as the casein supramolecules, particularly as the pH of the milk approached the isoelectric point of the caseins. Larger aggregates were observed at 40°C than at the lower temperatures, suggesting the involvement of hydrophobic interactions between the proteins. A 3-phase model for acid-induced gelation of milk is proposed in which the first phase involves temperature-dependent dissociation of proteins from the casein supramolecules, with more dissociation occurring as temperature is decreased. Dissociation continues as milk pH is lowered, with the released proteins forming into loosely entangled aggregates, some as large as the casein supramolecules. The second phase of acid gelation of milk occurs between pH 5.3 and pH 4.9 and involves a reassociation of proteins with loosely entangled protein aggregates forming into more-compact colloidal particles or combining with any remaining casein supramolecules. The third and final phase involves rapid aggregation of the colloidal casein supramolecules into a gel network at about pH 4.8. Different gel structures were formed based on temperature of acidification, with a coarse-stranded gel network formed at 40°C and a fine-stranded gel network at 10°C.