The whey of the future

Written by Marjie Knust
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Dairy products like cheese, yogurt, milk and other dairy-based beverages offer a natural source of protein that, until now, consumers haven't always been aware of

When Little Miss Muffet first sat on her tuffet eating her curds and whey, she probably had no idea how popular her snack of choice would become.

Today, the popularity of whey continues to climb as more research backs up the benefits of the cheese-making byproduct. Whey protein has been proven to help build muscle, aid in weight loss, strengthen the immune system, lower blood pressure and more.

“There are a lot of really good benefits of whey,” says Craig Schroeder, PhD, senior director of innovation at Dairy Farmers of America’s Innovation Center in Springfield, Mo. “Research continues to show benefits, and in the last three to five years, it’s really taken off as an ingredient in protein products.”

When cheese is manufactured, specific bacteria and enzymes are added to milk, forming curds and whey. For every pound of cheese made, nine pounds of liquid whey is produced.

“For years, cheese manufacturers would give liquid whey away for animal feed or land application because they didn’t know what to do with it,” Schroeder says. In the early 1990s, university research began to show the nutritional value of whey proteins.

Today, whey produces a higher return when sold to processors who turn the liquid whey into whey powders or concentrates. Those powders and concentrates are used in a variety of products from infant formula to ice cream. And one of the fastest-growing markets for whey ingredients is the health and wellness category, where it’s used in protein shakes, powders, bars and gels.

“Body builders discovered whey protein years ago, and really through word of mouth, it gained in popularity because of the way it aids in muscle recovery and building muscle mass,” Schroeder says.

Whey protein contains a high amount of branched-chain amino acids, which are essential to maintain and repair muscles after a workout.

“Our life is based on muscle recovery,” says Micah Lacerte, a personal trainer, owner of Hitch Fit in Kansas City, Mo., and fitness model who has been featured in more than 100 national fitness magazines. “Whey protein is a staple in the diets of 99 percent of the best-looking, most fit people in the world.”

According to Lacerte, in the fitness and bodybuilding industry, whey protein is preferred over other types of protein because it’s convenient and easily digested.

“I have a very structured way of eating,” he says. “I eat to achieve goals. I’m eating eight to 10 times a day. When you’re eating that often, it’s difficult to get meat and vegetables in every meal. That’s why at least two or three of those meals are in the form of protein shakes using whey protein, and one is always after a workout.”

It’s not just men looking to add bulk who are consuming whey protein, however. The popularity of products toting high protein content is growing with mainstream consumers as well.

“Protein in general is big right now,” says Kelly Piercy, senior director of technical development for DFA’s Innovation Center, which formulates new products for DFA brands and external customers. “We have a lot of customers requesting products with increased protein.”