HIE: Opportunity knocks for whey protein sector

By Anthony Fletcher in Frankfurt

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Whey protein, Milk

The growing popularity of whey protein is creating new
opportunities - though relatively low consumer recognition must
still be overcome.

This was one of the messages from last week's HIE show in Frankfurt. For while many food ingredients firms appear to be turning their attention to this value-added dairy product, there still remains the issue that the ingredient has a relatively low public profile.

"Were increasingly finding that food companies are adding protein to their products,"​ Carbery sales and marketing director Kieran Duggan told FoodNavigator.

"It's just one of many functional ingredients out there, but it's becoming a bigger issue. If you look at nutritional guidelines - the amount of protein required in school meals in the UK for example with whey protein, we're able to come up with a protein delivery system that meets these needs."

But whey protein still does not have the profile of, say, soy. In part this has to do with the relatively recent emergence of the ingredient as a viable ingredient. Up to 20 years ago whey was still being fed to pigs as waste from cheese production.

"The value of whey ingredients has increased,"​ said Duggan.

"As technology has developed, we have been able to look at whey proteins nutritional value. We quickly identified that there was a lot of potential."

Indeed, whey protein is increasingly hitting the mainstream. It is now on supermarket shelves, and is used extensively in infant formulae.

Whey has long been used for its functional properties, but it is also now increasingly being added because of nutritional properties. It is natural, has no e-numbers and can be used by food makers to reformulate their products to take out additives.

Recent studies have also helped to bolster the ingredient's reputation. New research, published on-line in the journal Food Research International​ (doi:10.1016/j.foodres.2006.01.007), suggested that modification of whey protein concentrates with high phospholipid proportions could turn standard emulsifiers into functional health promoting ingredients.

And a recent survey by Danish 3A Business Consulting on whey and lactose ingredients, suggested that food makers are increasingly viewing whey and lactose products as an ideal means of achieving added value. As such the global whey protein concentrates and isolates market is estimated at 395,000 MT in 2004 representing a value of just over $1bn.

The US remains the biggest producer at 187,000 MT followed by Europe with 159,000.

Carbery is intent on capitalising on this growth. The firm presented a number of new developments at the HIE show, underlining the fact that the ingredient is increasingly targeted at mainstream healthy products.

For example, Carbery is developing whey protein ingredients for use in beverages - an application that has proved tricky in the past due to the necessity for a low pH.

Its new, as-yet unnamed whey protein is pre-acidified (to custom levels if required), so that formulators do not have to tinker with the acidity of the main product in order to make it suitable.

In addition, the company highlighted an improved version of Isolac Clear for water-based beverages, which can be used in clear flavoured waters.

Developments such as these suggest that the whey protein sector is set to take off. In the US, whey protein itself has started to become a selling point in itself, suggesting that consumer recognition is getting there. And whey drinks in Germany are already very popular.

But the potential of this ingredient has still not been fully tapped. In Eastern Europe for example, a vast amount of whey still ends up as pig feed or as a surplus commodity.

"The whey industry therefore has a huge opportunity, but it also has a huge job to market itself,"​ said Duggan. "Look at the job the soy industry has done. This is what the whey industry has to do."

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