In recent years, whey has shaken off its humble origins as a discarded by-product of the cheese-making process. A range of sciencific, high-tech applications has lent the dairy waste product a new lease of life, and food manufacturers are finding new ways of capitalising on its value. just-food.com's Pamela Ahlberg asks: what is the future for whey?

Whey, the natural by-product of the cheese-making process, was once used for nothing more than fertilizer and pig feed. But in a superb case of making lemons into lemonade, this humble dairy waste is starting to find far larger and potentially more lucrative applications.

Thanks to the development of more sophisticated filtration and extraction techniques, whey and isolated whey components are now being used in a variety of ways by the food industry;: As an ingredient for health foods and beverages, a staple in dietary supplements, as a source for new sweeteners, and as a potential anti-bacterial treatment for meat.

There are two types of whey - "acid" whey and "sweet" whey. Acid whey is derived from cottage cheese production, where rennet is not used in the production process. Sweet whey, the more common of the two types, is a by-product of cheese whose curds were coagulated with rennet - such as feta or Cheddar cheese.

Finding a whey forward

It was during the mid-1980s that microscopic sieves were first developed to filter out whey's undesirable elements, such as lactose and fat. The final product was then dried and concentrated into powder form. With this development, food makers became very interested in whey as a cheap alternative to nonfat dry milk. Since then, concentrated whey powder has found its way into a variety of packaged foods; including breads, pastries, crackers, chips, sauces, soups and salad dressings.

But in the mid-90's bodybuilders began downing protein shakes made of ultrafiltered whey as a means to replace damaged muscle tissue. They also used whey products to boost their intake of protein and calcium, provide energy and help regulate metabolism. Proponents of whey protein have gone even further, claiming that it also reduces blood pressure, strengthens the immune system, suppresses appetite, reduces cholesterol and even inhibits dental plaque.

Exaggerations aside, the health-conscious, fitness set created a hungry new market for whey-based proteins and food makers quickly responded, developing nutrition/performance bars, geriatric foods, and dietary supplements to meet that demand. This new consumer market helped boost whey sales to US$1.4bn in 1996 from US$1bn in 1995.

Two privately held companies located in the heart of US dairy country were quick to supply the new ingredient. Sparta, Wisconsin-based Century Foods International and Davisco Foods International of Le Sueur, Minnesota, had both developed the whey protein isolates needed by food manufacturers using slightly different extraction techniques.

Meanwhile, a California-based company, Sepragen Corp., had been working on a chromatography-based process to extract whey proteins. In the late 90's, Sepragen opened a whey technology plant in Europe with Irish firm Carbery Food Ingredients and licensed its extraction technology to the New Zealand dairy producer Anchor Products. The company says it expects to have more licensees within the next few years.

Sweet potential

In addition to the demand for its isolated protein as a functional food ingredient, whey also holds commercial promise as the source for a new low-calorie, full-bulk sweetener, tagatose. Developed through a patented process by Beltsville, Maryland-based Spherix (formerly Biospherics, Inc.), tagatose is a monosaccharide sugar derived from lactose - 90% as sweet as ordinary sugar but containing only one-third of the calories. The company, which has spent over ten years developing the product, claims that unlike table sugar, tagatose does not promote tooth decay. This could enhance its potential for use in foods and sodas. Spherix has partnered with Scandinavian dairy cooperative Arla Foods to manufacture, market and distribute tagatose.

Food safety technology

The most promising and exciting new whey-derived product is neither ingredient nor food, but rather a food safety technology. Recent scientific studies have shown that lactoferrin, the protein in mammalian milk credited with protecting infants from harmful bacteria while their immune systems are developing, is able to protect fresh meat from pathogenic bacteria, including E. coli O157:H7, salmonella and campylobacter, by preventing microbial attachment and inhibiting growth.

Activated lactoferrin, in a formulation patented by Cal Poly Pomona medical microbiologist Dr A.S. Narain Naidu, increases the effectiveness of lactoferrin by 100 to 1000 times and is currently under review by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Initially the technology is planned for use on fresh beef.

DMV International (based in Veghel, the Netherlands), one of the largest producers of lactoferrin, has meanwhile formed a joint venture with US Farmland National Beef to manufacture and market activated lactoferrin as a food safety treatment. The joint venture will include the creation of a new research and development laboratory to study additional uses for the technology, including with chicken, pork, fish and fresh produce. DMV also announced an agreement with Vermont dairy coop, AgriMark, in September as a new source for lactoferrin.

Will the way be clear?

Whether whey protein bars, beverages and supplements remain in demand is uncertain. And whether new whey-based products and treatments deliver on their promises also waits to be seen. But for the dairy industry - always searching for value-added opportunities and new markets - such science-based, high-tech applications for this once lowly dairy discard certainly point the way of the future.

By Pamela Ahlberg, just-food.com correspondent

Pam can be reached by e-mail at: pahlberg@bellatlantic.net