Wondrous Whey

Thanks to new processing technologies and research attesting to its health benefits, whey’s future looks bright.
by Kathie Canning
Once deemed a bothersome — and costly — byproduct of cheese manufacturing, whey finally is enjoying some well-deserved respect. In reality, few other food ingredients can match it in terms of functionality and health benefits.
Despite all this progress, as much as 30 percent of whey still is disposed of. However, new whey-processing technologies and a growing portfolio of applications for the dairy ingredient promise to further shrink that percentage in the years to come.
A Tale of Technology
In general, whey refers to the translucent liquid that separates from the curd during the milk-coagulation step in cheese manufacture. The two major categories of whey in the United States are sweet whey and acid whey.
Sweet whey results from the manufacture of hard cheeses such as cheddar and mozzarella and has a pH greater than 5.6. Acid whey, on the other hand, is produced during cottage cheese and ricotta manufacturing processes and has a higher mineral content and a pH of less than 5.1. It generally requires special treatment to mitigate its rather bitter, metallic taste.
To create a product suitable for use in food, beverage and other applications, water is removed from both whey forms. Sometimes minerals or lactose also are removed.
In the United States, most whey powders are based on sweet whey, which boasts a bland flavor that works well in many food applications. Today’s whey ingredients range from simple sweet whey powders to high-end whey proteins and go into numerous products ranging from dairy foods to nutritional supplements to processed meats.
What a change from 30-some years ago, when most whey was either spread on fields or fed to livestock. In addition, a much larger portion of the whey destined for beneficial reuse has shifted from the livestock feed sector to the human food sector, notes K.J. Burrington, whey applications program coordinator for the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Almost 80 percent of the whey [reused] in 2002 was used for food, and the rest for feed,” she says. “It’s gone from something like a 60/40 split to an 80/20 split just in the last seven years.”
Processing technologies can take much of the credit for whey’s elevation in status.
“Whey was first converted to whey powder with approximately 12 percent protein,” says Sean Walsh, whey technology director for Monroe, Wis.-based Glanbia Nutritionals Inc. “As evaporating and drying technologies improved, more whey was processed, and higher protein levels were achieved.”
Crossflow-membrane-based separation technology introduced during the 1970s created “multiple new product opportunities,” says Steve Dott, vice president of the Lomira, Wis.-based Grande Custom Ingredients Group of Grande Cheese Co. Dott specifically credits ultrafiltration membrane technology as the force behind today’s commercial whey protein industry, “as it made separating and concentrating whey proteins possible and economical.”
Ion-exchange and microfiltration technologies have since “allowed manufacturers to increase the biological value of whey protein” cost-effectively, says Doug Clairday, national sales manager for St. Paul, Minn.-based Protient Inc. The technologies have enabled manufacturers to re-invest in process technology and plant efficiency, he says, while delivering superior-quality whey ingredients at a lower manufacturing cost.
Processing technology advances, for example, made it possible to separate the protein from the lactose component to produce the first whey protein concentrate (WPC).
“WPC 34 [34 percent protein] was the standard for a number of years, until further developments in technology made it possible to achieve WPC 80 [80 percent protein],” says Walsh. “The next development, whey protein isolate [WPI], reached a 90 percent protein content.”
The shear number of separation technologies available today also has encouraged the customization of whey proteins for specific end uses.
“Crossflow membranes ranging in pore size from microfiltration, ultrafiltration [and] nanofiltration to reverse osmosis allow concentration by removal of water [and] salts and separation of peptides and proteins by size,” says Jill Rippe, director of R&D/technical sales support for La Crosse, Wis.-based Main Street Ingredients. “Ion-exchange columns allow a high level of demineralization of whey by selective removal of salts. So not only do you have concentration of proteins, you also can have selective concentration to create different composition profiles.”
By controlling pH and heat and mineral balance, manufacturers can enhance whey’s water-binding abilities, says Rippe. Commercially available forms of these enhanced proteins have applications in a number of processed food applications, she adds, such as frozen desserts, confections, sauces and cheeses.
Whey to Wellness
Whey proteins bring a number of functional properties to dairy products, baked goods and confections, processed meats, sauces and soups, and many other foods and beverages. They serve as excellent emulsifiers, whipping agents and water-binders, and also aid in gelation, thickening and browning.
In addition, they allow for a clean label, says Laurie Davis, director of analytical research and application sciences for Davisco Foods International Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn. Moreover, she stresses, their bland flavor allow them to be incorporated easily into “virtually any food product.”
In the functionality arena, whey ingredients continue to face stiff competition from other, often less costly ingredients. However, a growing body of research linking whey proteins with myriad health benefits suggests a rosy future for these versatile ingredients both in and out of the nutritional supplement sector.
Wellness issues have increased consumer and processor interest in protein overall as an ingredient, says Burrington. Whey proteins offer the nutritional benefits of protein, yet are easy to use in terms of functionality and flavor.
“Whey protein is one of the most bioavailable, highest-quality protein sources, and its usage is increasing significantly,” says Kelly Czerwonka, marketing manager for Glanbia Nutritionals. “It has always been strong in the sports nutrition products, but it continues to expand in other categories as more health benefits are discovered.”
The sports and body-building segments long have reaped health benefits specifically from WPI and WPC 80 ingredients, says Rippe.
“With the ability to achieve fat and carbohydrate levels below 1 percent, these proteins allow flexible design of nutritional beverages, bars and unique formulated foods with very high protein and selected fat or carbohydrate profiles,” she says. “This allows whey protein to be used in everything from low-carbohydrate, lowfat, low-glycemic and weight-management products to muscle-mass-building, high-caloric products.”
The ingredients soon could enjoy more widespread use in the mainstream food and beverage sector once consumers learn about whey’s many unique health benefits and whey proteins become even more customized to specific consumer needs.
“Consumer demand for functional foods is growing rapidly,” says Clairday, “so it is important that mainstream food companies learn more about the health benefits of whey products in functional foods before waiting for ‘trickle-down’ impacts. For example, consumers have accepted mainstream food terms such as ‘good for you’ or ‘heart healthy’ to describe products that are above being just really good tasting. With the advances in science and technology, it is only natural that consumers transfer to a marketplace with a multitude of value-added products.”
According to Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), Rosemont, Ill., whey protein is “of high biological value compared to most other proteins.” It consists of several different proteins, including beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, immunoglobulins, bovine serum albumin, lactoferrin, glycomacropeptide (GMP) and more. Moreover, new technologies allow the isolation of a variety of biologically active amino acids, peptides and fractions.
Several of these whey proteins have been shown to inhibit the activity of some foodborne pathogens and other microorganisms, says DMI. Some also exhibit antiviral activity against human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and stimulate the immune response to various antigens.
Certain whey proteins also may slash the risk of cancer by increasing the cellular levels of glutathione, says DMI. In addition, whey contains bioactive components that may lower blood pressure, inhibit platelet aggression and reduce blood cholesterol levels, positively impacting overall cardiovascular health.
Whey protein’s GMP has been found to stimulate cholecystokinin (CCK), a hormone that essentially tells the brain the stomach is full, says Rippe.
“The GMP in whey is a byproduct of cheese enzymes acting on casein protein during the coagulation of milk,” she says. “Typically, GMP is about 10 to 20 percent of the total proteins in liquid whey. Specific processing by microfiltration, ion exchange and ultrafiltration can concentrate GMP in whey protein to 70 to 80 percent.”
Breaking with Tradition
Technology advances related to whey ingredients also stand to boost demand in several non-traditional areas.
One such advance recently culminated in the development of a crunchy whey protein ingredient that can serve as a healthful addition to foods such as cereal bars, frozen desserts and yogurt toppings. The ingredient also shows promise as a meat extender and meat replacement.
The WPCrisp™ product is the result of a collaboration among Grande Custom Ingredients Group, Utah University and DMI. Researchers created the patented textured whey protein by extruding a whey protein/edible polysaccharide (e.g., cornstarch) combination through a twin-screw extruder, says DMI.
Grande Custom Ingredients has an exclusive license from Utah State University to manufacturer the new product, says Dott. It currently is offered in four standard sizes at 50 percent whey protein, but also can be customized to the needs of individual food manufacturers.
Another promising area for beneficial reuse is in edible whey protein films and coatings. John M. Krochta, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), has been performing quite a bit of research in this area, with funding provided through the California Dairy Research Foundation and DMI.
“Whey proteins are unique in that they are capable of forming transparent, flexible, colorless, glossy, bland films or coatings from aqueous solution,” says Krochta. “Depending on the conditions of formation, the films/coatings can be water-soluble or water-insoluble.”
The water-insoluble coatings, says Krochta, are stronger and stretchier and make better barriers to oxygen and aromas. They also are more resistant to moisture.
“We believe that the combination of properties for whey protein films and coatings makes them superior to other materials for protecting foods from oxygen, aroma loss, oil migration, physical shock and vibration,” says Krochta, “and for providing good food appearance [such as] gloss. We have also shown that bioactive agents such as antimicrobial and antioxidant compounds can be incorporated into whey-protein films and coatings for additional protection of foods.”
Thus far, Krochta and his research team have used whey-based formulations to coat peanuts, chocolates and cheese, as well as paper.
Commercially available peanuts have thus far not been coated for oxidation protection, Krochta says, largely because an acceptable water-based oxygen-barrier coating did not exist. However, his research team has shown that a whey-based coating could double — or even triple — the nuts’ shelf life.
“We are presently working on increasing the coverage and adhesion of whey protein coatings on peanuts using pilot-scale coating equipment,” says Krochta. “Several confectionery companies are interested in our technology for increasing the shelf life or their projects that contain peanuts.”
Whey-based coatings also could one day stand in for the confectioner’s glaze that coats a number of today’s chocolate products.
“Several chocolate products are coated with shellac in an ethanol solvent to provide a glossy appearance and to make them less tacky,” says Krochta. “The ethanol solvent creates worker-safety and environmental problems upon evaporation. We are presently working on improving the gloss and reducing gloss fade of aqueous whey-protein-based coatings for chocolate. Again, several confectionary companies are interested in our technology.”
In addition, researchers have realized “encouraging results” from the addition of the anti-mold agents potassium sorbate and natamycin into whey-protein coatings for cheese, says Krochta. Because these agents are incorporated into a whey-protein coating, they are held at the surface of the cheese to inhibit surface mold growth instead of diffusing into the cheese interior. This research will be extended into the protection of ready-to-eat food products such as smoked salmon, lunchmeats and cheese for a variety of pathogenic organisms of concern, he adds.
Finally, the researchers have found whey-protein-based coatings to be “excellent oxygen and grease barriers” for paper, says Krochta. This research is “especially important,” he notes, because the major manufacturer of fluoridated compound grease-barrier coatings recently dropped its products because of food safety and environmental concerns. Krochta and his team are working with a major paper company to assist it in whey-coating-related pilot studies.
Although research at UC Davis thus far has focused on the formation of whey-protein films for use as coatings, Krochta hopes to take the technology a step further — using an extruder to turn whey protein powder into stand-alone films for use as food wraps or for heat-sealing into food pouches.
“We have recently shown that it is possible to apply the correct combination of heat and pressure to whey protein powder in a compression molding process to form transparent, flexible films, just as from a whey protein solution on a casting surface,” he says. “These encouraging results have led to ongoing research on forming such films in the same type of extruder used for making synthetic plastic films.”
Overcoming Obstacles
Although 100 percent utilization of leftover whey might never become a reality, new processing technologies and a growing array of value-added applications certainly will help. However, cheese-makers, whey suppliers and potential end-users of whey still must overcome a few obstacles.
First of all, food sectors currently underutilizing whey proteins should consider the benefits the ingredients potentially could bring to their products.
Although approximately half of all whey processed into an ingredient eventually ends up in a dairy application, the goal tends to be functionality, not for value-added fortification, says Burrington.
“The dairy sector is using whey protein, but could be using it in more products,” says Davisco’s Davis. “Adding dairy protein to dairy products makes the most sense.”
Rippe says underutilization of the ingredient by the dairy sector could be a remnant from the days when whey was viewed as a byproduct inferior to dairy solids.
Standards of identity also hamper dairy processors’ ability to fortify dairy products with whey protein, says Rippe.
“Fluid milk, when fortified with whey, must be called a ‘drink’ even if the dairy protein content is equivalent or higher,” she says. “Ice cream cannot go over 25 percent replacement of milk solids with whey or it must be called a ‘frozen dessert’ — again, even if the dairy protein content is equivalent or higher.”
However, notes Rippe, whey protein concentrates and isolates offer a ready option to replace some of the carbohydrates in reduced-carb dairy formulations — a plus even if the resulting product must be called something else. She points to a “maverick” frozen novelty called the Cold Fusion Protein Bar, which is made from WPI and contains 10 grams of protein per serving. Its manufacturers claim it “tastes like ice cream, works like an energy bar.”
The dairy industry should “celebrate the virtues of whey fortification and allow identification of these as dairy products,” adds Rippe.
Consumer education also will be key to increasing whey usage within the dairy industry, says Burrington.
“If you had, for instance, a yogurt and could say ‘now with more added whey proteins,’ consumers would have to be familiar with those benefits,” she says. “Right now, I don’t think they know that.”
Cost remains an issue for some more traditional whey applications, notes Burrington.
“I think what’s happened over the years is the competition has kind of driven dairy out of certain categories because there are other ingredients that have somehow filled their functionality for less cost,” she says. “Meat is definitely one of those areas.”
Whey also has “lost a lot of ground in soups and sauces,” says Burrington. “People tend to gravitate toward starches and things for those kinds of applications — you can do it very cheaply with a starch. I’m not sure if we’ll get that back or not, but I keep thinking that if people are concerned about carbohydrates, maybe it’s one way to get around it. Whey makes a sauce that’s less starchy — it uses protein to get the same kind of functionality.”
Protein’s rising status could help whey win back some of these functional applications, says Burrington.
Finally, for many cheese plants, the cost to process whey byproducts and transport them continues to make beneficial reuse difficult.
“There is still some whey that is land-spread or fed to animals as a liquid without further processing,” says Dott. “Generally, this is whey from small plants without the economics to process, or the whey is unsuitable for processing due to the cheese style.”
To improve the economics, says Burrington, some of the smaller plants might want to invest in a reverse osmosis system to process the liquid whey.
“In this case, they would just be taking away and removing the water from it so that if they did ship it to somebody, they would have a lot less water and it would be less costly,” she says. “And most reverse-osmosis systems for their size are not going to be that costly — you’re talking about a few thousand dollars instead of hundreds of thousands for some other equipment.”
What if whey’s escalating popularity one day creates a market where demand exceeds supply?
That’s not necessarily a problem, says Rippe.
“Traditionally, whey availability has been dependent on cheese-making,” she says. “This is no longer necessary. Whey protein can be separated directly from milk by microfiltration processing, creating whey protein and micellar casein. This whey protein contains no residuals from cheese-making such as cultures, enzymes, GMP, color or lactic acid and should be optimum in nutritional value and [impart] most of the functionalities of traditional whey.”  df
Finding the Whey
A number of suppliers offer whey proteins for the dairy sector and other food and beverage segments.  Suppliers contributing to this article include:
• Davisco Foods International (www.daviscofoods.com), which offers the BiPro® whey protein isolate, BioZate® bioactive peptide systems, and BioPure™ purified whey protein fractions for a variety of food and beverage applications. The BioZate 1 product has been shown to lower blood pressure and positively impact cardiovascular disease risk factors.
• Glanbia Nutritionals (www.glanbianutritionals.com), which supplies the Provon® whey protein isolate for beverage fortification, the Thermax® 690 whey protein isolate for low-acid beverage applications, the BarPro™ partially hydrolyzed milk protein isolate and BarFlex™ partially hydrolyzed whey protein isolate (which extend the shelf-life of high-protein nutritional bars) and other whey ingredients.
• Grande Custom Ingredients Group (www.grandecig.com), which offers the Grande Bravo line of whey proteins and the new WPCrisp products. The Bravo line, suitable for a wide range of food applications, is produced through a proprietary process that uses a unique filtration technology and heat treatments to boost performance.
• Main Street Ingredients (www.msing.com), which markets a complete line of dairy ingredients, including whey, lactose, whey protein concentrates, whey protein isolates and more. The company stresses its ability to select or blend whey products for target protein, lactose, fat and mineral content and to select functionality by processing methods.
• Protient  (www.protient.com), which offers Whey Protein Concentrate 8000, Whey Protein Isolate 9000, Hydrolyzed Whey Isolate Prolong 90 and Hydrolyzed Whey Concentrate Proextend 80. The products feature a lower sodium content and water/physical processing benefits in terms of flavor and formulations geared toward specific food applications.  df
Another Whey
Although sweet whey and acid whey account for the bulk of cheese-making byproducts, salt whey also represents a disposal concern.
Produced during the final whey removal step in cheddar and other natural cheese-making processes, after salt has been added to the curd, salt whey can elevate the soil’s chloride levels if it is land-spread. Current salt removal technology such as nanofiltration, however, is only marginally cost-effective, according to Lloyd Metzger, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Food Science and Nutrition.
Metzger recently collaborated with DMI, Bongards Creameries and others to transform this problematic byproduct into an ingredient for process cheese.
The project focused on a local Bongards plant that manufacturers natural cheese and process cheese within the same facility.
“They are spending about $250,000 a year to dispose of their salt whey,” says Metzger. “It would be a benefit to them if they could put it back into their process cheese.”
The whole concept is really about taking a common-sense approach to problem-solving, notes Metzger. After all, Bongards’ process-cheese product already requires the addition of salt and water — why not substitute the salt whey byproduct?
Although the salt whey also contains some additional components such as lactose and whey proteins, Metzger says, “those solids are also in process cheese. So it was as simple as adjusting the formulation to account for those solids.”
The end result was a process cheese with “no sensory and no texture differences” from the traditional product, says Metzger.
The company currently is waiting for government approval to implement the formulation changes, notes Metzger.
“There’s a whole standard of identity for process cheese and what kinds of ingredients you can use,” he says. “It looks positive at this point, but it’s a fairly slow process.”
Once it gets past the approval hurdle, Bongards stands to save not only $250,000 a year in disposal costs, but also a chunk of change in whey solids and salt ingredient costs.
That sounds like a win-win situation.  df
Crazy for Caramel
Caramel is the latest flavor craze, and a company’s kosher-certified caramel sauce and caramel bits can help manufacturers meet consumer demand. The sauce flows at room temperature and adds a rich taste and soft, chewy texture to ice cream and other frozen desserts. Suitable for mixing into puddings and yogurts, 3/8-inch chewy caramel bits are easily distributed via conveyors and hoppers. Both products have a nine-month shelf life when stored at recommended temperatures. — Kraft Food Ingredients Corp., (901) 381-6500, www.kraftfoodingredients.com
Nutrient Know-how
A company creates nutrient blends, or premixes, containing from two to more than 20 fortification ingredients. Working directly with manufacturers, the company can customize both liquid and powder nutrient blends that add value and consumer appeal to foods and beverages. Premixes eliminate on-site mixing and inventory storage while ensuring product consistency. — DSM Nutritional Products Inc., (800) 526-0189, www.nutraaccess.com
Milk with Kid Appeal
The Crazy Scoops line of brightly colored fruit-based flavors is designed with kids in mind. Offered in banana, grape, berry-blend and tropical versions, the flavors contain less sugar and fewer calories than many ready-to-drink flavored milks and have no caffeine, hydrocolloids or added fat. They can be mixed and matched to create unique flavor combinations. Once stirred into soymilk or whole, 2 percent, 1 percent or skim milk, the flavors maintain a uniform flavor and color. — Danisco USA Inc., (913) 764-8100, www.danisco.com
Tootsie Treats
Denali Flavors Inc. and Tootsie Roll Industries Inc. formed a co-branding alliance to introduce Tootsie Roll® and Tootsie Pops® ice cream to dairies and the national market. The Tootsie Roll ice cream boasts soft, chewy fudge-filled treats in a fudge swirl and chocolate ice cream base, while the Tootsie Pops version has crunchy cherry and grape candy bits in a fudge swirl and vanilla cream base. — Denali Flavors Inc., (616)  877-4625, www.moosetracks.com
Cut Carbs, Calories
A dairy beverage targets consumers who are counting carbohydrates or calories. Created for dairies or beverage manufacturers that want to expand their product offerings, the beverage boasts a wide range of available flavors, a net carbohydrate count between 3 and 7 grams and 80 to 90 calories per serving. — Main Street Ingredients, (800) 359-2345, www.msing.com
Marvelous Milkshakes
TIC Pretested® Dairyblend 366-THK powder acts as a stabilizer in ready-to-drink milkshakes, direct-draw milkshakes, flavored milk products, and low-carbohydrate and other dairy-based beverages. The multi-functional gum system not only allows processors to achieve the desired viscosity, but also helps prevent separation during distribution and storage and control ice crystal formation on direct-draw shakes. — TIC Gums Inc., (410) 273-7300, www.ticgums.com
Add Fiber
The Fibersol-2™ product is a spraydried powder produced by the pyrolysis and controlled enzymatic hydrolysis of cornstarch. Suitable for use as a prebiotic in cultured day foods, frozen dairy foods and many other food products, the soluble dietary fiber has no inherent or added flavor and features a high solubility and a very low viscosity. It is acid, heat/retort and freeze/thaw stable. — Matsutani America Inc., (217) 875-9819, www.matsutaniamerica.com
Ice Cream Improver
Specially adapted functional dairy proteins serve as a complete replacement for skim milk powder in a new frozen dessert system. The proteins combine with the Daritech™ FR 287 product to create a frozen dessert system that yields both cost savings and product improvements. Frozen desserts exhibit enhanced extrusion properties, excellent melt resistance, clean flavor and a mix viscosity equivalent to ice cream made with skim milk powder. — Degussa Food Ingredients/Business Line Texturant Systems, (800) 241-9485, www.texturantsystems.com
Calcium Salts
A company now offers a highly bioavailable calcium that is suitable for fortification of a variety of foods and beverages. The calcium lactate-gluconate product contains 13 percent calcium, but its high solubility allows fortification at levels that will meet the RDA for a serving. The ingredient can be used in products ranging from low-pH juices to neutral-pH foods, dissolving quickly and easily and remaining stable for the product’s life. It can be added directly to the water or preblended with other dry ingredients. The company also offers calcium gluconate and calcium citrate ingredients. — Jungbunzlauer Inc., (800) 828-0062, www.Jungbunzlauer.com
Hold the Sugar
No-sugar-added fruit fillings add a natural fruit taste and a sense of indulgence to foods without excess sugar. The technology helps processors create great-tasting, yet lower-carb products. — Kerry Americas, (800) 334-4788, www.kerryamericas.com 
Say Cheesier
The Cheesy Culturoma™ products add a yummy cheesy flavor profile to dairy, bakery and snack foods. Available in specific cheese flavors such as Cheesy Cheddar, Cheesy Jack and Cheesy Parmesan, the dairy fat-based starter distillates result from natural dairy product fermentation and steam distillation. The shelf-stable products provide the rounded dairy top notes and base notes for flavor and mouthfeel. — DairyChem International Inc., (317) 849-8400, www.dairychem.com