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DNR Research Is Changing Whey From Burden To Bonanza

When more than 30,000 of the world”s leading managers and technical experts in the food industry gather for the Worldwide Food Expo ”99 in Chicago this October, they will have the chance to taste an extraordinary new fruit smoothie made with whey protein and milk calcium. The strawberry-banana smoothie, developed at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, is designed to be a good source of protein and calcium, says Kimberlee “KJ” Burrington, coordinator of the CDR”s whey applications program.

The smoothie is just one of several foods created at the CDR that demonstrates new ways to take advantage of the highly nutritious and functional properties of whey. For example, researchers successfully replaced some of the fat in cookies and whole eggs in cakes with whey proteins. The smoothie was engineered to meet federal nutritional-claims rules as being “a good source of protein” and “an excellent source of calcium.”

Another success is a recipe created just this summer for a caramel-like confection called dulce de leche or “sweets of the milk,” which incorporates whey protein concentrate in place of milk solids. Dulce de leche is eaten like peanut butter in Mexico and South America where it is extremely popular, but requires expensive and scarce fluid milk. In the United States, the confection is becoming a popular addition to ice cream. Haagen-Dazs started making dulce de leche flavored ice cream in February 1998, and ranks it second only to vanilla in sales, according to Burrington. The CDR is currently marketing its formulation to U.S. manufacturers.

New technology is revealing the valuable proteins and other compounds within whey that can boost the nutritional quality and increase the shelf life of many processed foods and make whey more valuable to its producers and processors, she says.

Two years ago, the CDR developed a whey applications program to help processors find new uses for what was once considered a waste product, explains Burrington. Whey, a byproduct of cheesemaking, is already an ingredient in a wide variety of food products including cakes, cookies, snack chips, drink mixes, and infant formula. However, until now, whey served merely as an inexpensive source of solids in many of these foods, adds CDR associate Karen Smith. Smith, who worked in the whey processing industry her entire career, joined the CDR as a processing researcher. Smith and Burrington, who worked in research and development in the baking industry before coming to the CDR, are graduates of the UW-Madison.

As part of the whey applications program, the CDR began building a pilot plant in Babcock Hall to separate and purify the proteins and other compounds in whey. The plant applies new technology, called ion exchange, that separates out the valuable whey proteins. It should be completed by the end of 1999.

The separated and purified whey proteins are sent to the applications laboratory – a kind of test kitchen – which evaluates how the proteins work in dairy foods, baked goods, confections, meats, sauces, beverages, and “functional foods” (foods that provide certain health benefits beyond normal nutrition).

The whey applications program is responding to industry demands for new ways to use whey that benefit its producers, processors and consumers. The CDR wants to encourage development of value-added whey products by showing manufacturers how and why to use whey in their formulations, says Burrington.

“There are two sides to this. How do you make it and how do you use it,” she explains. Cheesemakers and whey processors know how to make different ingredients from whey, but lack new uses for them, according to Burrington. Burrington and Smith are working with UW-Madison chemical engineer and food scientist Mark Etzel to isolate the proteins and minerals in whey and find uses for them in value-added products. Etzel”s research concentrates on separating whey proteins through the ion exchange process he developed.

Cheesemakers produce 90 pounds of whey for every 10 pounds of cheese manufactured. Half of the original milk nutrients end up in the whey. In the past, farmers spread whey on fields as fertilizer and fed it to animals. “Whey was a burden to the environment,” Etzel added. Today, about 40 percent is still fed to animals, but humans consume nearly 60 percent, says Burrington.

An unlikely, but growing market for whey is in Asia, where its health benefits make it attractive to consumers. According to the U.S. Dairy Export Council, 1998 U.S. whey-protein sales to Japan and China increased 8 percent compared with 1997, and shipments to Korea rose 18 percent during that time.