Cutting-edge scientific developments and business opportunities and challenges were all on the menu at the eighth International Whey Conference, held Sept. 17-20 in Chicago. The event attracted more than 600 attendees from 30 countries, about one-third of whom traveled from outside the United States, according to the host, the American Dairy Products Institute (ADPI), Elmhurst, Ill.

The conference enjoyed strong participation from whey company CEOs and other senior executives, a group of whom kicked off the conference to set the stage and then returned for a wrap-up “where do we go from here” session, said David Thomas, CEO of ADPI.

The conference used mobile apps to funnel questions to the session moderators for the first time, which worked well, he added.

Benedicte Masure, deputy secretary general for the European Dairy Association, said conference speakers and participants expressed pride in their organizations’ progress toward product development and health benefits, as well as research and innovation.

“The many questions from the floor also indicated the high interest of the participants, eager to better understand or to share their own experience,” she said. “One should not forget that whey started as waste and is becoming now indispensable for specialized nutrition!”


A mix of business and science

Conference organizers tried to find the right balance of business-oriented and scientific content, leaning a bit harder on the business side than in past conferences, said Lee Blakely, a dairy industry consultant and chair of the scientific committee.

“What made it a little bit different was the involvement of so many CEOs and leaders in the industry,” he says. “The conference covered strategies on the business side: ‘How are we going to protect and grow the industry?’”

On the scientific side, the conference covered a number of topics related to nutrition, including the benefits of whey for infants, seniors and athletes, as well as the overall impact on body composition. Sessions also covered the range of whey-based products and emerging ingredients, applications, markets and processing technologies.

Attendees reacted with great interest to a presentation by Frank Mitloehner of the University of California, Davis (UC-Davis) about sustainability, Thomas said.

“He gave an excellent presentation that highlighted the fact that we need to do a better job of telling our story about the sustainability of whey products and how they stack up against plant-based proteins,” he said. “That was a theme throughout, about telling our story better.”

Alison Van Eenennaam, also of UC-Davis and a producer of the film “Food Evolution,” spoke on the issue of GMOs and dairy products.

“There was a lot of discussion about the challenge of food security going forward, and also meeting some of the consumer trends looking for non-GMO products,” Thomas noted.

Attendees also had the opportunity to watch the film “Food Evolution,” Blakely said, and Van Eenennaam was on hand to answer questions afterward.


Opportunities and challenges

The conference also touched on whey-related opportunities and issues such as global supply and demand, evolving demand drivers, marketing and regulatory challenges, and identifying and meeting consumer needs.

Among the strengths Thomas heard voiced was the quality of whey proteins, which will be thrown into higher relief as the accuracy of test methods improves.

Masure added that whey’s expansion in orientation — from mostly business-to-business to business-to-consumer — is a strength, as is the fact that whey “is not only seen as a very valuable ingredient but also as a final product — whey drinks, for example.”

Among the challenges whey faces are competition from plant-based proteins and the fact that consumers are demanding cleaner labels, which can be difficult to fully achieve with whey-based products, Thomas noted.

“The names [of ingredients] can sound scary to people, but all they are is a fraction” of what’s originally there after filtration techniques are performed, he said.

“An undeniable challenge is the restrictive legal framework, at least in Europe, as regards health and nutrition claims,” Masure added. “The last panel discussion on ‘Building our Future’ saw both ADPI and EWPA [European Whey Products Association] presidents concluding that more has to be done on communicating the value of whey.”