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Previously considered waste, whey is emerging as a niche product
The early ancient Greeks had a saying, “If you drink whey, you live long.”
Apparently, they were on to something. Whey, a milk by-product obtained during cheese production, was nothing more than waste fed to pigs by farmers or used as sprayed fertilizer on crops for years. No more. For the past two decades, utilization has been the buzzword. The dairy industry has stepped up efforts to develop new whey products, is promoting whey and its nutritional benefits more aggressively to food manufacturers, and is investing significant capital expenditures in whey processing equipment.
Thanks to the ability to supply high quality whey year-round, the United States is the largest producer of whey in the world, manufacturing more than 800,000 metric tons annually. More than 200 U.S. companies specialize in whey production.
Foremost Farms USA, a processor located in Baraboo, Wis., has been in the business of selling whey for 20 years. Customers include infant formula companies, the pharmaceutical industry, snack food producers and animal feed companies.
“We saw an opportunity to take a by-product and turn it into a feed and food application,” says Jim Geyer, vice-president of the ingredients division. “Many companies saw the same opportunity. In general, the whey industry was production driven – you processed it and marketing sold the product. I think in the future you will see the whey business driven by customers looking for things like nutritional properties and functionality.”
Opportunity is also what led Mark Davis, president of Davisco Foods International Inc., a Le Sueur, Minnesota-based dairy processor, to see the possibilities in marketing whey protein concentrates as an ingredient in 1981. Davis patented an ion exchange process called Chromatography to separate the protein from the whey powder to produce a high quality whey protein concentrate. One of the first entries into the whey protein concentrate arena, Davis marketed this new ingredient entry in the United States, Europe and Japan.
Marty Davis, general manager of Davisco Food Ingredient Companies, marvels at his father’s courage and foresight. “He took a tremendous risk entering into a new market,” Davis says. “But he recognized the tremendous functionality of whey protein. In a whey protein concentrate, you have a nutritional ingredient that offers water-binding capability, gelatin properties, ability to emulsify with fats, improved viscosity and texture and enhanced whipping and foaming performance.”
Whey suppliers like Foremost Farms and Davisco are competitive and successful exporters because they have top quality equipment, continuity of product supply and low manufacturing costs, according to Bill Haines, Ph.D., vice president of business-to-business marketing for Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), Rosemont, Ill.
Earlier this year, DMI launched a new marketing campaign called “Do it with dairy”” to support the industry by promoting food technologists’ understanding and use of dry milk and dry whey ingredients. The effort includes a web site at www.doitwith dairy.com, newsletters and a technical assistance hot line answered by a food technologist.
Additionally, DMI helped to establish the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research’s Whey Application Program, complete with a whey applications lab. It is funded by America’s dairy farmers and is under the joint direction of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and DMI.
Applied research with whey, whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate and individual pure proteins is conducted through the program. The program also works closely with key food companies to determine industry needs to increase use of value-added whey ingredients.
On the global front, DMI also works with the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which is responsible for laying the groundwork for export growth and expanding the United States dairy industry’s presence in the world market.
“There is an expanding market and marketing whey has become one of our priorities,” says Marc Beck, vice president of marketing for USDEC. “Our global market strategies involve potential end user research, creation of whey product manuals for international audiences, a Web site and participating in international ingredient shows. There will be new frontiers and applications identified, and we must be a part of that future.”
Haines agrees that there is a great future for whey in the global marketplace. “Whey is a classic story of how a product can move from rags to riches,” he says. “If you look back it was a huge disposal problem. Initially, turning it into a feed application was a tremendous solution and the first step in developing new uses for whey. Today, whey can be processed to have certain properties and functionalities that are useful across a wide range of categories from baking to beverages to snack foods.”
According to most experts, the key to whey’s future success depends on learning more about whey. “I believe we haven’t come close to tapping the full potential of whey,” says Davisco’s Marty Davis. “We need to learn more regarding the nutraceutical, pharmaceutical and medicinal properties of whey, and need to further develop the second and third generation of whey proteins – whey protein fractions and peptides.”
Mike Front, vice president of the business-to-business group for Land O’ Lakes, Arden Hills, Minn., notes that through new further processing technologies and marketplace opportunities that are emerging, whey is becoming a truly value-added dairy product.
“This may sound more like hallucination than vision,” Front says. “But I hope to see the day when cheese is viewed as the by-product of whey.”
Editor’s note: Mike LaPolla serves as director of nonfat dry milk and whey marketing, Dairy Management Inc., Rosemont, Ill.
Copyright Stagnito Publishing Sep 1998
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