Waste of the Past is Nutrition of the Future
by Lori Hoolihan, Ph.D., R.D.
During the past 20 years, whey protein has gone from being a waste product of cheesemaking to a highly valued product rich in nutritional and functional properties. Whey is now found in a range of products, including infant formulas, food supplements, sport bars and beverages, which meet a variety of health goals for people of all ages.
As the health benefits of whey proteins are substantiated, the food industry is presented with numerous product development and marketing opportunities.
Nutritional Dynamo
Due to its high concentration of essential and branched-chain amino acids, whey protein has been shown to help individuals maintain muscle tissue. This can be particularly important for senior citizens, those trying to maintain or lose weight, and in active individuals.
Seniors reap many rewards when consuming whey proteins. By preserving or increasing lean body mass, seniors can protect themselves against undesirable changes in body composition as well as many ailments associated with aging such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.  Research also suggests that whey protein may minimize sarcopenia — muscle loss associated with aging — that affects an overwhelming 30 percent of seniors in the United States.
Specific factors in whey protein are being investigated for their role in weight management. For instance, calcium is found to assist in weight-loss efforts, and studies link low calcium intakes to an increased risk of obesity. Lactose — the primary sugar in whey products — assists in controlling hunger and may also promote weight loss. Lactose has a minimal effect on blood-sugar levels and insulin response, making it ideal for people with type 2 diabetes. Protein has been shown to increase fullness and modulate energy intakes, which may result in a loss of body fat and weight. Branched chain amino acids, specifically leucine, may also help increase fat loss and promote lean muscle tissue in conjunction with an exercise program.
Whey protein is desirable to athletes due to its rich, branched-chain amino acid content, for which the body’s demand increases with endurance exercise. Whey proteins’ relatively high level of essential amino acids are effective at stimulating protein synthesis in adult muscle. Recent studies also suggest that whey proteins can improve lean body mass and performance in athletes on a resistance training regimen.
Whey proteins are unique in their ability to optimize a number of aspects of the immune system, primarily by boosting glutathione (GSH) levels in various tissues. GSH, the centerpiece of the body’s antioxidant defense system, protects cells against free radical damage, pollution, toxins, infection and UV exposure.  Thus, incorporating whey proteins into the diet may protect the health of not just those with a compromised immune system such as individuals with cancer and HIV, but also people of all ages.
Industry Opportunities
With the maturity of the functional foods movement and the prevalence of research establishing the link between diet and health, the consumer has never been more receptive to information on health benefits of certain foods and food products. Dairy is well positioned as a healthy food choice, and whey proteins will likely be embraced by consumers.
The broad range of benefits of whey protein — and age range of consumers who can reap its rewards — offers a tremendous opportunity for the dairy industry.
Food products on the market today that contain whey protein are limited, leaving a large gap for product developers to fill with new or reformulated products. A single whey-fortified product could potentially be marketed to active adults, teenage athletes, weight-conscious individuals as well as seniors — all with different health concerns and motivational factors.
As increasingly educated consumers seek and demand health-promoting products to meet their individual needs, it will clearly benefit the dairy industry to consider incorporating whey protein into product lines.
Lori Hoolihan, Ph.D., R.D., is the nutrition research specialist for Dairy Council of California. Hoolihan utilized information from the Whey Protein Institute for this article.
For more information, contact the institute at www.wheyoflife.org or (866) 949-9439.