Donna Berry

"When we discuss whey, the future is limited only by our imaginations," said Jim Page, CEO, American Dairy Products Institute, Elmhurst, Ill., at this past week's Fourth International Whey Conference in Chicago. "The truth is, whey protein is in every way a superior protein. It contains all of the essential amino acids our bodies need for good health. It has the highest biological value of any protein-higher than eggs and certainly higher than any vegetable-based protein. It's a highly digestible protein. Plus, whey appears to preserve lean muscle mass, lower blood pressure and enhance immunity.

"But just as important, whey is a good-tasting, versatile and highly functional ingredient-essential benefits to food and beverage manufacturers as they create the nutritious, but still delicious, products consumers are demanding," he added.

So why aren't food and beverage manufacturers using more whey? Page reassured the audience not to worry. "They will be."

I am sold. A little later in this column I will share some dairy innovations from abroad, where whey is used as a base ingredient. Domestically, whey's presence is a bit less visible, but this is sure to change as consumers learn more about whey's many wonders.

To get a sense of the power of whey, let's go back in time. Whey has some interesting beginnings. In fact, whey has been an important food-and medicine-for thousands of years. The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, is said to have insisted on a daily dose of two liters of whey.

In the Middle Ages, whey was used in salves and potions to soothe burns, as well as to inspire vitality and to cure illnesses. In medieval times, "whey houses" were the equivalent of our bars or pubs. (I highly encourage serving a whey beverage at the next reception you host.)

By the 1600s, whey was used to treat jaundice, infected lesions of skin, gonorrhea and epilepsy. And by the 19th century, whey wellness and spa-like cures were a hit at society events in Switzerland.

"But then came the dark ages of the last century," said Page. "A time when whey fell out of favor except as animal feed. For years, this versatile and ancient source of nutrition went unnoticed. Some even dared call it a ‘waste product.'"

Indeed, most in the dairy industry today are guilty of at one time or another thinking of whey as a mere by-product of cheesemaking. Shame, shame. But, fortunately, we have seen the bright light.

"The evolution of whey from waste to commercial product is a real story of turning lemons into lemonade," said Page. "The research and development of whey and whey proteins was truly a breakthrough in the dairy industry, almost as big as the invention of vanilla ice cream. Technology emerged that separated the protein from the ash, lactose and minerals. Whey products containing between 35% to 95% protein became available and a new business opportunity was developed."

If you did not have the chance to attend this three-day conference in the Windy City, hopefully after reading this column you will agree: Whey is the future.

The fact is, whey is currently used in thousands of products . . . and not just products found in health food stores and bodybuilding gyms, but in everyday products found in local supermarkets. The category of finished products containing whey is currently valued at $1 billion, and the potential is immense.

Dairy Management Inc.™ (DMI) is a leading supporter of whey protein nutritional and functional research and applications projects, helping drive use of this important protein source in the future.

"DMI is supporting cutting-edge research in whey ingredients," said Greg Miller, Ph.D., MACN, senior vice president of nutrition and product innovation for DMI, which helps build demand for U.S. dairy products and ingredients on behalf of America's dairy farmers. "These research efforts help food and beverage manufacturers make products that taste great, offer better nutrition and provide unique functionality, such as clarity in protein-enhanced beverages."

In 2004, 1,519 products using whey ingredients were introduced in the United States, compared with 1,207 a year earlier, according to Mintel International Group's Global New Products Database. During the past decade, DMI has leveraged U.S. dairy farmer dollars to support numerous research and applications projects at dairy research centers and applications laboratories to give manufacturers insight into how to use dairy to their advantage.

Many sessions at the recent whey conference featured DMI-supported research or DMI experts addressing issues such as ways to preserve the taste and stability of high-acid beverages with added whey protein, "instantizing" whey protein for easy use in all kinds of applications, considerations of whey's clean neutral flavor in beverages and the advantages of whey protein in yogurt.

"Food and beverage formulators can use these findings as a competitive advantage in new product development," said Miller. DMI provides expertise and laboratory resources to help manufacturers bring new or reformulated products from concept to market.

John Lucey, Ph.D., from the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shared with conference attendees his research on the use of whey proteins in yogurt. According to Lucey, whey ingredients offer several benefits as a fortification material to formulators of yogurt products: cost reduction, improved texture, reduced wheying-off and the replacement of non-dairy ingredients, which provides for a cleaner label. For more information, contact the DMI Dairy Technical Support Hotline at 800/248-8829.

As promised, here's a brief review of products here and abroad that are made with whey ingredients. Dairy applications are more prevalent in Europe, where whey is often used as a base for nutritional, fruity dairy-based beverages.

For example, France-based Danone markets in Germany and Austria the children's drink FruchZwerge FrumixX. This refreshing beverage is made from fermented milk and whey, and contains 6% fruit juice. For adults, Austria's Nom AG markets a probiotic whey and fruit drink that is fortified with vitamins and calcium. The beverage debuted under the brand Frisch & Frucht, but quickly changed to the English name Refresh. Most recently the "re" has been dropped and the whey drink is simply called Fresh.

Muller markets a variety of whey beverages around Europe. For example, in Germany, Muller markets the fruit juice-whey drink called Froop. In The Netherlands, there's Juicer Muller, which contains 10% whey.

In the States, Yoplait Nouriche is one of the few dairy products formulated with whey ingredients.

As you see, whey has a promising future in the food and beverage formulating world. And if formulators are not looking at whey right now, as Page said, "They will be."