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.”

As a whole, Americans are increasing their protein intake. According to the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, Americans are eating 14 percent more protein than they did 30 years ago, and more than 50 percent of consumers say they are trying to get more protein in their diets vs. a year ago. Part of the increased focus on protein could stem from more adults who are trying to reduce the amount of meat they eat and looking for additional sources of protein.

Dairy products like cheese, yogurt, milk and other dairybased beverages offer a natural source of protein that, until now, consumers haven’t always been aware of.

“What we’ve found in our research was there was a real lack of awareness by consumers that dairy contained protein,” says Marlene Schmidt, vice president of dairy health and wellness at the National Dairy Council. “We wanted to see how we could get the message out that dairy is an excellent source of protein.”

Through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, dairy processors from the ingredients, milk, cheese and yogurt business sectors have formed a Protein Task Force charged with developing tools and messages for the industry to use to spread the knowledge that dairy products contain protein along with other essential nutrients.

“Dairy has an inherent protein message we can deliver,” says Ted Sowle, assistant vice president of consumer brands for DFA’s Global Dairy Products Group (GDPG). “For the first time, we are putting a protein message on the front of packages for some of our cheese lines.”

By communicating the amount of protein in a stick of string cheese on the front of the package, consumers may be prone to buy more of these snacks rather than nuts or other products that are already known for their protein levels, Sowle says.

“It’s amazing who is talking about the importance of protein,” he says. “I was at my daughter’s soccer practice the other day and heard two parents talking about wanting to add more protein to their diets. Protein isn’t just a buzzword for body builders any more. When soccer moms are talking about wanting to find more protein in their diets, you know it has mainstreamed.”

In addition to calling out the natural protein content of cheese, DFA’s consumer brands group is also developing new products that take advantage of the popularity of whey protein by combining it with other popular beverage categories.

The type of protein found in dairy products comes not just from whey, but also from casein, which, like whey, can be extracted from fluid milk and is used as an ingredient in products like nutritional beverages such as DFA’s Sport Shake.

“If you break the protein down in raw milk, you have 20 percent whey and 80 percent casein,” Piercy says. “Those proteins are designed for the way our bodies work. It makes sense because milk was designed by nature to be the ultimate mammal food.”

Lacerte says he utilizes casein protein as well as whey protein in his diet.

“I’ll use casein protein at night because it’s slower digesting,” he says. “You’re not eating for 10 hours or so, so you want something that’s going to take longer to digest.”

The market for protein from dairy products and ingredients is growing overseas as well. DFA exports sweet whey powder to a variety of customers throughout the world. During the past 10 years, the United States has grown its dry whey exports more than 66 percent, while whey protein concentrates are more than three-fold higher. In fact, during 2011, more than one-half of the whey produced in the United States was consumed outside of our domestic borders.

“As developing countries’ economies grow, the diets of those populations improve, and they add more and more protein,” says Lavonne Dietrich, vice president of sales and marketing for GDPG. “The U.S. dairy industry will be in a good position to supply that protein as we have a large and growing cheese industry to provide various whey products for international demand.”

Part of the appeal of dairy as a protein source is that there are other nutritional benefits as well, Piercy says.

“The positive nutritional benefits of dairy are good,” he says. “I think it’s going to stay that way.”