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Whey’s back – and this time it means business

Today, the market for milk products is a far larger one than the market for products based on whey, the by-product of cheese manufacturing. Around the world, everyone is familiar with milk, even if they don’t (or can’t) drink it. By comparison, there are still relatively few people who know what whey is, or have the faintest idea of its benefits. But this wasn’t always the case...

History tells us that things tend to move in cycles. Whatever is popular now may not be so tomorrow – but it may well make a comeback, though in a form that matches the needs of the new age.

Today, the market for milk products is a far larger one than the market for products based on whey, the by-product of cheese manufacturing. Around the world, everyone is familiar with milk, even if they don’t (or can’t) drink it. By comparison, there are still relatively few people who know what whey is, or have the faintest idea of its benefits.

But this wasn’t always the case…

If we go back far enough – to the 17th century – whey was the highly fashionable drink of choice, regularly served at inns and coffee houses. And, by the 18th century, specialised ‘whay-houses’ had become a common sight. In fact, whey was considered to be more wholesome than milk (the latter was usually reserved for children and the elderly). And it was often consumed as a cool, refreshing drink in the summer, perhaps with herbs or fruit juices added.

Of course, it wasn’t the taste of untreated whey that spurred this early market on. It’s much more likely that whey’s high level of acidity and ‘good’ bacteria content meant that it kept relatively longer in pre-refrigeration times. In any case, whey’s position as the drink of choice gradually faded, and it seems to have slipped more or less into oblivion. The age of large-scale milk production and consumption had arrived.

Around fifty years ago, however, the whey industry slowly began to reawaken. In the sixties, milk-based infant formulas with a whey/casein ratio similar to that of human milk gained a foothold in the USA. Then, in the seventies, the muscle-building promise of whey protein made itself known to hobbyist sportspeople, and countless teenagers around the world began pumping iron and mixing powdered whey protein in an attempt to look more like Arnold Schwarzenegger and less, perhaps, like a stick insect. It was a modest start to whey’s exciting comeback -  and a welcome step for those who were aware of just how much of a problem whey had become.

Down and out
You see, from a raw ingredients utilisation point of view, cheese production is highly inefficient. Producing 1 kg of cheese, for example, can result in as much as 9 kg of whey. Getting rid of whey in the not-too-distant past, therefore, was a constant need for cheese manufacturers. Their choices were few, and not very good at all.

In fact, we only need to go back some 30 years, even in industrially developed countries, to find whey being dumped down the drain, released directly into rivers or streams, fed to pigs or spread across fields.

Whey fights back
The true potential of whey, however, lay in food production: That’s because whey contains about 20 percent of the milk’s protein, most of its sugar and around 50 percent of the total nutrients. In fact, if you’ve got the right equipment, you can derive whey protein, demineralised whey powder, lactose as well as milk mineral products, demineralised permeate powders and many more useful ingredients.

Recovering these proteins and other nutrients, however, required new processing technologies as well as a viable business model that could justify the necessary investments – and, of course, that products could be created that would appeal both to food manufacturers and the consumers they serve.

Today, whey has moved from being a waste product to a level where it is not unimaginable that it could challenge milk as the dairy industry’s most valuable product. Natural whey ingredients are now supporting food producers in a range of applications – from bakery, beverages, and dairy to sports nutrition. Additionally, the whey industry’s top players, with access to a secure supply of high-quality raw materials, creates added value for medical and infant nutrition manufacturers, for whom uncompromising quality is paramount. Certainly, for milk producers and their customers, whey has become an important new business area, and the market for high-quality whey-based products is showing no signs of slowing down.

Quality rules
Whey has moved into an increasing range of applications, enabling producers to extract more and more value from milk – and to minimise environmental impact. Along with these developments, the quality of whey and whey-based ingredients has become every bit as wide-ranging. It seems clear that, now and in the future, making the most of whey’s new capabilities belongs to whey producers who can innovate and process at the highest quality, and who are able to extend this quality mindset to the very source of their precious raw ingredient: the dairy farm itself. But there is more still, to the concept of quality and its importance for continued growth of the whey industry.

A world of change
Adapting to consumer priorities and preferences is a constantly moving target for food ingredients and food manufacturers. It’s hard not to notice that a fundamental change has been underway, shifting the focus of many consumers from low pricing toward quality as a key purchasing criterion. Today, ‘quality’ has become a broad term spanning everything from food safety and the use of natural or artificial ingredients, to animal welfare, sustainable cultivation and production, and even to food waste concerns.

The whey industry has a lot to contribute to these developments, sourcing natural food ingredients from a by-product and making it possible, for example, to produce high-quality, reduced-fat cheese and yogurt drinks without adding artificial ingredients.

The ingredients of success
Historically, the whey industry’s proudest achievement, as I see it, has been to confront and solve the dairy’s pressing waste dilemma. Today, no part of whey has to go to waste – although many parts of the world have yet to come fully up to speed.

The big picture, however, is more about what this valuable resource can do to help support our planet and its inhabitants – representing a complete turnaround in how we view what once was simply waste. And it’s also about improving the quality of this ingredient further still, right from the start of the value chain. Soon, in fact, whey could become available in volume as an organic ingredient, most likely enabling organic infant nutrition as its first application.

For all the whey industry’s progress, I’m convinced we are still only at the beginning of the journey. To realise the full potential of whey, further steps must be taken in research and in processing technology. That’s why, from our own company’s point of view, at least, it’s full speed ahead, putting more commitment and resources behind an industry that has made a solid comeback – and which could one day become dairy’s most valuable asset.

This blog contains material and information intended for B2B customers, suppliers and distributors, and is not intended as information to the final consumers.