Tracing the journey from waste to whey protein
How whey protein turned from a waste product to a nutritional powerhouse with expertise and innovation.
10 June 2020
The journey of whey from waste to nutritional powerhouse
Today, whey protein is one of the most valued ingredients in the food and beverage (F&B) industry, highly prized for its nutritional and functional characteristics. But as recently as 50 years ago, raw whey left over from cheese production was viewed as a major inconvenience to farmers. Often, it was simply thrown away or sold off cheaply as livestock feed and fertiliser.
The dairy industry needed a solution that was less wasteful, more sustainable, and created more value for farmers.
The New Zealand dairy industry has always been at the forefront of new innovations – we were the first in the world to produce casein on a commercial scale as early as 1912 – and whey was no exception.
In the 1960s, more engineers and scientists were employed to uncover valued uses of whey than any other comparable development in New Zealand and this led to us being one of the first to recognise the commercial opportunity whey presented.
Thanks to our industry know-how and advanced manufacturing processes, we have since established ourselves as a global leader in the development and commercialisation of high-quality whey protein solutions and continue to innovate and add value to this previously overlooked by-product.
Uncovering world-first innovations in whey protein
The discovery of whey’s nutritional and commercial power was only the beginning. Using our knowledge of whey protein from our work with partners in the F&B sector, we successfully advanced our ultrafiltration technology in 1980 to further concentrate protein levels up to 80%, opening up a wider range of applications for whey protein concentrate (WPC) across different food products, such as custards, yogurts and infant formula.
Leveraging our strong foundation of expertise and research capabilities, one of our key focus areas in the late 2000s was to overcome a major barrier to using WPC in beverage formulations – its susceptibility to heat – that had led to unwanted sensory attributes such as chalkiness and lumpiness.
[heat stable] WPC 550 is the most unique product I have ever been involved in developing.
Brent Vautier | Senior Research Technologist at the Fonterra Research and Development
Years of research eventually led us to launch SureProteinTM WPC 550 in 2012, the world’s first heat stable whey protein.
It has since been applied to a wide range of consumer products including yogurts and ready-to-drink beverages, setting a new benchmark for the dairy industry and in turn unlocking new opportunities for NZMP through fresh applications that rely on heat-stable WPC, like protein crisps.
Catering to evolving customer needs
As the health and wellness trend continued to grow in popularity between the 1980s and 1990s, we saw an influx of customer requests for new low-fat variations of WPC for use in beverages, and whey protein isolate (WPI) was identified as an ideal solution.
We began producing WPI on a commercial scale in 1995, which allowed our customers to add more nutritional value to their products.
Today, NZMP is the sole New Zealand manufacturer of WPI, one of the purest and most complete sources of protein that offers exceptional versatility and functionality.
As the protein user base started to expand, manufacturers faced the challenge of ensuring optimal flavour and texture for everyday consumers.
NZMP’s SureProtein™ Clear WPI 8855 was developed to provide beverage producers with an ingredient that would offer high nutritional value, while meeting new consumer preferences.
It has since been used in a variety of clear beverages such as flavoured waters and carbonated drinks, allowing consumers to increase their protein intake with ease.
Our expertise has also allowed us to apply WPI to mainstream products without compromising texture – a key demand from consumers. When incorporating WPI into protein bars, manufacturers faced difficulties with texture: bars were either too sticky or dry and rock-hard. In response, we developed an extended range of SureProtein™ advanced protein bar ingredients that overcome processing issues while still delivering to consumer expectations.
The vast research that was undertaken on WPIs has also paved the way for further development of functional WPC solutions and to this day, we continue to leverage the insights accumulated in the past decades to develop new protein ingredients.
From texture-building WPIs to WPCs with unique softening properties, our ingredients can be applied to a wide variety of products, ranging from dough or nougat bars, through to granola and crisp bars, while also delivering a great sensory experience for consumers.
Creating value from waste
Throughout the years, whey has transformed from a waste by-product to an ingredient that is highly valued by manufacturers and consumers. This complete, high-quality protein source provides the basic building blocks of the human body and can contribute to a wide range of health benefits.
NZMP's New Zealand provenance
Consumers are also looking for products that come from natural sources like grass-fed whey protein. NZMP’s New Zealand provenance gives us a key competitive advantage, as our temperate climate allows grass to flourish and our cows to produce delicious and nutritious milk, meaning we can produce the highest quality dairy proteins.
What is not as widely discussed is the environmental gains from uncovering whey protein, which showcases how the dairy industry has made a concerted effort to tackle food waste.
While sustainability has only recently become a focus for most F&B companies, the dairy industry was one of the first to spark a transformation towards a circular economy decades ago.
Continued innovation to sustain industry growth
Since its humble beginnings in the 1960s, net returns from whey protein products have generated billions of dollars for New Zealand’s economy and delivered more nutritious options to consumers. As the benefits become apparent, competition from other dairy companies has helped to spur growth for NZMP as well as the industry.
In this dynamic environment, manufacturers of whey protein products must recognise the need for continuous innovation to develop new applications for the ingredient in different markets.
This innovation is also essential to meet the challenge of feeding a rapidly expanding human population, as consumer understanding of the value and health benefits of protein becomes widespread.
At NZMP, we continue to push ourselves beyond boundaries, resulting in a consistent pipeline of industry-leading products. We also recognise the importance of collaborative innovation, which is why we pride ourselves in working with other industry partners and customers to explore new opportunities and tailor our solutions to meet their needs.
The journey of whey from a waste product to nutritional powerhouse, offers a timely lesson for the entire F&B industry to continue to seek ways to optimise the value of food by-products for the benefit of consumers, businesses and the environment.