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Whey protein has come a long way since it was first discovered more than 5000 years ago. From a revered ingredient to an unwanted by-product to a prized and priceless commodity, whey protein and whey powder has come full circle when it comes to its history. Worth an estimated USD $9.8 billion as of 2013, whey products make up over a tenth of the global supplements market and is projected to grow on average 4% every year for the next 4 years, at least. Forget about carbs and forget about fats, protein is the future and whey protein is the alpha.

A Short History of Everything Whey

To truly appreciate the future of whey, it pays to visit its history and the history of whey protein is nothing short of fascinating. The father of modern medicine Hipocrates originally prescribed whey, back in 460BC as a treatment for gastrointestinal issues and skin conditions. Skip forward 2000 years and ‘whey houses’, akin to today’s coffee shops began popping up in London and around major centres of Britain. At these whey houses, whey became a fashionable ingredient and you could get anything from functional whey drinks to whey soups, whey butters, whey cheese, whey porridge and even whey teas. In fact, the popularity of whey grew so much that by the early 19th century, whey was used at day spas as an economical alternative to milk, but which still provided plenty of ‘health promoting benefits’.

By mid 20th century though, whey experienced a massive fall from grace, much like the gluten backlash of 2004, which has really yet to peak according to Google Trends. Driven by milk and milk product demands, the dairy industry grew dramatically at this time resulting in a burst of cheese, butter and casein production. Unfortunately though, this resulted in whey being nothing more than a ‘wheyst’ (sorry, I couldn’t resist) product. In fact, the dairy industry had trouble getting rid of it, resorting to using is as animal feed, and discharging it into rivers and oceans and even the sewerage system. Environmentally and economically though, these methods of removing growing whey streams were unsustainable.

How Whey Got its Groove Back

Due to its high lactose content, whey was an incredibly potent pollutant, which resulted in governments enacting legislation for better disposal methods. Coupled with a surge in scientific research and knowledge about whey protein, industry slowly but surely began doing a 180 and whey experienced a bit of a renaissance. This was due to a couple of major benefits of whey protein including:

  • Exceptional nutritional quality as a protein source
  • Great digestibility profile and high biological value
  • Rich in essential and branched chain amino acids
  • Large range of functional food properties for processing, taste, texture and nutrition profile

Thanks to science, whey was fast becoming the ‘it’ ingredient and a range of technologies, scientific and engineering advances came about as a way to capture the desirable components of whey including its protein, lactose and functional micronutrients. Improvements to membrane filtration processes, demineralisation technology and drying techniques resulted in a boom in the availability and quality or whey proteins and their products. Now, more than 250,000 tonnes of whey protein concentrate are manufactured each year, with demand so strong that current production is often limited by whey availability.

Whey's Industrial Revolution

The last two decades of whey processing has really focused on developments that bring the maximum potential of whey protein. Initial advances in membrane processing allowed for higher quality and higher protein whey products with WPI 90+ a result. This figure refers to the protein percentage of the powder. But beyond that, perhaps the biggest advancement so far for the processing of whey protein has been the cost effective fractionation of the two major proteins in whey – α-lactalbumin and β-lactoglobulin. While these developments had very little impact on whey protein powders for the sports supplement market, it led to an explosion in food, formula and clinical applications of whey protein.

For example, β-lactoglobulin rich whey is used in a variety of low fat food items thanks to its ability to behave like a solid fat. This helped to improve the mouth feel and taste of a range of low-fat items right at the height of the low-fat craze that swept the world. The ability to create α-lactalbumin rich whey has also benefitted the infant formula industry and has created a formula products that more closely match human milk composition. The infant formula market is gaining traction around the world, especially in underdeveloped countries, which has effectively driven up the price of both formula and whey. The past 20 years has also seen a dramatic shift in the dairy and food industries. The transformation and sophistication of the global food marketplace, a growing middle class and greater advances in health research and desires are driving the popularity and demand for whey. It is the crude oil of the supplement industry, but challenges and opportunities still exist.

The Future of Whey Protein

The last 50 years has seen a phenomenal growth in whey processing technologies and engineering. This has been driven partly by necessity and partly through demand. The next 50 years is going to be an interesting time for the whey market and the whey industry. Here are four of the major developments in the industry that is set to make an impact in the near future:

1. An Ocean of Acid Whey

Currently, the whey protein that you get in infant formulas and exercise and sports supplements are made using ‘sweet whey’; a by product of cheese making, especially hard cheeses. However, there is another type of whey by-product that is created with the production of Greek Yoghurt and high casein products. This by-product is known as ‘acid whey’ and there is a growing sea of the stuff. Unlike sweet whey, acid whey is lower in protein and harder to dry due to it acidic nature (acid whey is as acidic as orange juice). Presently, there isn’t really a cost-effective removal or processing method of acid whey, which is a problem because the Greek yoghurt industry (worth more than USD $2 billion) is producing more and more of the product. In fact, figures show that Northeastern US produces over 500 million litres of the stuff a year. Just as with sweet whey back in the day, acid whey is a major pollution issue and with the Greek yoghurt industry continuing to expand, history is going to have to repeat itself, else we’ve got a major issue on our hands. If we’re able to commercialise acid whey though, the global food and supplements industry is set for a massive shake up.

2. Demand Demand Demand

Unlike carbohydrates and fats, there isn’t quite the same stigma regarding protein. Whether it’s for benefits to muscle health or for more clinical applications, the demand for higher protein diets, foods and supplements is driving demand. Whey protein has a range of benefits that aren’t easily replicated with plant based and other sources of protein, so it should be interesting to see how companies will be able to keep up with demand. The technologies surrounding processing of acid whey will definitely be a major focus, as will be the use of other milk sources including goats and sheep milk. More immediately though, industry is going to invest in improving the efficiency and cost effectiveness of processing, which should help to drive costs down slightly.

3. Blends & Functional Peptides

Whey protein is fairly expensive compared to plant proteins such as soy and wheat. This has led to strong and increasing competition between whey and other cheaper sources of protein. However, more recent studies have shown that instead of competition, industry would be wise to come together and blend these different proteins. Not only will this help to reduce cost, but blending multiple sources of proteins helps to provide complementary as well as new functional properties. For example, combining fast (whey), medium (soy) and slow (casein) proteins has been shown to provide substantial benefits to muscle recovery than use of whey alone.

Whey itself is a rich source of unique and functional peptides that have the potential for a massive range of applications. As research into whey and its constituent peptides continues to grow, you’ll see further developments in products that will not only help industry but also on a population level. For example, recent research has found that proline rich whey peptides have the ability to modulate the folding of human amyloid-β peptide 1-42 which could represent a key to addressing diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline.

4. A Different Whey

Research has also examined the possibility of altering the structure of whey itself. Certain nanostructures can be created simply through a bit of processing such as nanohydrogels, nanofibrils and nanotubes. Without getting too heavy on the science, creations of these structures by altering the structure of whey can act as a carrier or bioactive compounds, some of which suffered issues of bioavailability when taken orally. These compounds include probiotics and prebiotics, vitamins, antioxidants and peptides. Companies have already started adding plenty of these ingredients to their whey products as well as others such as medium chain triglycerides and the like to create more functional nutraceuticals. The future however goes beyond the provision of just whey and other ingredients. Rather, it will be whey products that already have incorporated ingredients which are capable of being directed to certain tissues or have different release patterns as a way to improve its bioavailability.

The Only Whey is Up

Whey protein and whey products are experiencing a level of popularity, demand and innovation that is nowhere near its peak. The 2014 Consumer Whey Protein Tracker Study discovered that less than a third of US shoppers realised that whey protein came from milk, with many believing that it’s a plant based protein. The full potential of whey has barely had its surface scratched and the next 50 to 100 years is going to be an incredibly exciting time for the ingredient.

1. Smithers, G.W. (2015) Whey-ing up the Options: Yesterday, today and tomorrow. Int. Dairy J. 48; 2-14. 
2. Ramos OL, Pereira RN, Martins A, Rodrigues R, Fuciños C, Teixeira JA, Pastrana L, Malcata FX, Vicente AA. ‘Design of Whey Protein Nanostructures for Incorporation and Release of Nutraceutical Compounds in Food.’ Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2015 Jun 11:0.
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