Whey's growing role in feeding a hungry world

Joe Taschler and Karen Herzog / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE — Got whey?

From infant formula and protein supplements to sports drinks and nutrition bars, whey — the nursery rhyme food that was once a ditch-dumped byproduct of cheese making — is taking on growing clout as a global food ingredient. And food scientists are seeking even more uses for the protein-dense product that can help build muscle and lean bodies.

The Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last week picked up a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to develop higher-value whey products for export, including new products for fast-growing Asian markets. Researchers also will be working to develop healthier dairy-based alternatives for school lunches in the United States.

The timing of the $1 million research grant couldn’t be better: Technology is helping unlock more of the nutritional value of whey as the number of mouths to feed grows across the planet.

“The technology is advancing to the point where it’s becoming even more of a valuable product for the dairy industry than it was even five years ago,” said Jen Pino-Gallagher, agricultural market development manager for the Wisconsin agriculture department.

The value comes from separating the protein in whey from its less valuable lactose, minerals and fat.

Currently at the top of the whey value chain is 90 percent-plus protein powder, followed by 80 percent protein powder, 34 percent protein powder, sweet whey and dried lactose-mineral permeate, said Dean Sommer, a cheese and food technologist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research.

Cheese is made by adding enzymes to milk, causing it to separate.

The curds that form are used to make cheese, leaving behind whey protein in the liquid part. The liquid whey is then pasteurized and typically dried into a powder.

Increasingly, cutting-edge technology isolates the protein from the liquid whey and captures it for high-value uses.

K.J. Burrington, dairy ingredient applications coordinator at the University of Wisconsin dairy research center, spends a lot of time in a laboratory figuring out new uses for whey, including its less in-demand components.

For instance, 80 percent of permeate — the lactose-mineral mix left after protein is isolated from whey — is now used for animal food. Only 20 percent goes into food for people. But recently, researchers have been working on developing permeate into a healthier alternative to salt, because it has a salty flavor.

“The reduced sodium (in permeate) was kind of a surprise,” said Burrington, who has worked on whey for 15 years. “It wasn’t really on anyone’s radar” until around 2000, she said.

Whey research at the University of Wisconsin center and elsewhere has evolved in the past 20 to 30 years. Whey initially was dried and sold as a relatively inexpensive protein filler in foods, and was fed to animals, said Sommer.

“That was before we realized the nutritional benefits and functionality of whey,” he said.

Whey protein has a clean, neutral flavor, so when it’s used in food manufacturing, it adds little or no taste, Sommer said.

“Whey proteins are the most nutritionally complete proteins known,” Sommer said. “That’s why body builders use whey proteins for muscle building and muscle repair, and recovery after strenuous exercise.”

Products with whey protein as a major source of protein list “whey protein isolate,” “whey protein concentrate” or “hydrolyzed whey protein” near the beginning of the ingredients list. Look for it in smoothies, oatmeal, soups, sauces, dips and baked goods.

The low-carb movement of the early 2000s put protein in the spotlight to stay. But the focus has evolved.

A diabetic watching his or her glycemic index, or someone trying to lose fat while preserving muscle, may benefit from whey protein.

Ryan Dorn, a sales associate at Elite Nutrition in Milwaukee, pours a smoothie that includes whey protein. The protein-rich product is being incorporated into more food products.