Whey, the increasingly popular milk protein once described as a byproduct of cheesemaking, is now recognized for its ability to enhance health.

PHOTO COURTESY OF Grande Custom Ingredients Group
Whey, the increasingly popular milk protein once described as a byproduct of cheesemaking, is now recognized for its ability to enhance health. In fact, during the past decade, numerous studies have indicated an association between whey intake and an increase in muscle mass. More recent studies suggest that whey intake is associated with weight management and cardiovascular health.

The whey to a health claim

Whey proteins are highly functional ingredients in food formulations, including dairy foods. They stabilize and emulsify; they foam and they solidify. The list goes on. But these are just the overt benefits of formulating with whey protein ingredients. This list will likely attract more product developers to formulate with whey when their marketing counterparts learn about the new U.S. Whey Protein Research Consortium, which was formed to gain recognition for whey's covert benefits.

Initially launched as an ad-hoc taskforce by members of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, this group of producers, processors, food manufacturers, trade associations, scientific organizations and governmental groups is working together to investigate and substantiate scientific support of FDA-approved health claims for whey proteins. The consortium grew from a need for clinical trials to substantiate health claims that food and beverage marketers can use to tout the addition of whey to product formulations. Indeed, clinical trials take time and money, more than most manufacturers and processors can afford. The consortium's model is unique in that it integrates the financial and intellectual resources of its members for a common goal.

The Agricultural Research Services unit of USDA, the organization involved in cardiovascular research for the soy industry during the 80s, will conduct the research and clinical trials. Consortium members are funding the project, with the initial investment being a half million dollars. They hope to have the first research findings by the end of this year, with full clinical trials completed in 2007.

Innovative ingredients

With that, whey protein manufacturers are sitting on a gold mine, and are making great efforts to create new forms of whey proteins to broaden applications. For example, at the University of California in Davis, scientists have developed and hold patents on processes in which whey can be made into films and coatings for various food products.

A very new patented and commercialized whey protein ingredient-WPCrisp™-is the result of a unique partnership between researchers at Utah State University in Logan, Dairy Management Inc., and Grande Custom Ingredients Group, Lomira, Wis. Through farmer funding, university scientists conducted pioneering research on an extrusion process to create a textured whey product. Grande has licensed the exclusive rights to the patent to manufacture and market the product.

"This will allow the dairy industry to expand into new markets previously dominated by other food proteins," says Marie Walsh, one of the project's lead researchers. "The university developed the project to the pilot-scale level and the industry (Grande) was able to take it to a mature technology."

The new ingredient combines the superior nutrition of whey protein with the texture attributes of natural cornstarch. WPCrisp has many applications, but its high-protein content makes it ideal for nutrition- and health-oriented products. Crunchy ingredients in nutritional products have traditionally come from soy-, corn- or rice-based ingredients. Depending on the application, these products sometimes impart off flavors. They also do little to increase the nutritional value of the food. Because WPCrisp is made from whey protein, it not only delivers a clean dairy flavor, it is also provides a complete amino acid profile.

WPCrisp is currently available in four standard sizes at 50% protein, but a wide range of sizes and formulations can be created to meet customer requirements. On the dairy side, WPCrisp can be used as a mix-in or inclusion in frozen desserts and breakfast-style yogurts, as well as a crunchy on coated frozen novelties. Other applications include cereal, nutrition bars and, salad toppings.

These ingredients are just the beginning. The future for whey proteins is infinite.