Wellness Food Trends: Whey Protein Gaining Popularity

As a functional ingredient, whey does not compromise on taste, clarity or stability in beverages.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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When Little Miss Muffet sat down to eat her curds and whey (cottage cheese, made up of lumpy curds and milky whey) she was dining on a rich combination of of healthy nutrients. Whey protein, which makes up 80 percent of the protein found in human milk, contains all the essential amino acids to match our protein requirements and is easier to digest and absorb than other proteins.

Whey is a complex ingredient made up of lactose, fat, minerals and protein; and the protein is made up of many smaller protein subfractions -- beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, immunoglobulins (IgGs), glycomacropeptides, bovine serum albumin (BSA) and minor peptides such as lactoperoxidases, lysozyme and lactoferrin. Each of these subfractions has its own unique biological properties.

Separating these subfractions on a large scale was prohibitively expensive until recently. Modern filtering technology has improved dramatically in the past decade, allowing companies to separate some of the highly bioactive peptides - such as lactoferrin and lactoperoxidase - from whey.

There's been a steady growth in consumer awareness of the benefits of protein in sports performance, weight management, lean muscle mass retention, satiety and general wellbeing. Recently, researchers at Washington State University found whey protein may help lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure in young, pre-hypertension individuals, reports WholeFoods Magazine (see below).

"As this awareness grows, so does the need for consumer products that deliver these benefits, and more importantly taste great," says Carrie Schroeder, category marketing manager for functional nutrition at Fonterra USA Inc., Rosemont, Ill. Highly functional protein ingredients are well placed to not only deliver on the promise to consumers but will allow manufacturers to responsibly market the benefits."

Schroeder says the emergence of functional foods and beverages that specifically target baby boomers is likely to be a key area of innovation. "As baby boomers age, health concerns including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, physical mobility and the loss of lean muscle mass (sarcopenia) become priorities," she says. "This large and valuable consumer group is actively seeking vitality through products that meet their changing nutritional needs and fit in with their lifestyles."

And she adds, "There is emerging science supporting the need to evenly spread protein consumption across the day in order to optimize muscle protein synthesis. This synthesis is critical to prevent sarcopenia and ultimately loss of physical mobility. Whey protein, due to its high levels of leucine [which stimulates muscle protein synthesis] is particularly well placed to target sarcopenia."

Fonterra's ClearProtein 8855 delivers the sought-after nutritional benefits of whey protein without compromising on taste, clarity and stability. Looking ahead, she says, "We anticipate an increase in the number of whey protein based products that target different meal occasions such as breakfast and lunch; as these are the occasions where protein is often lacking."

In January, Grande Custom Ingredients Group Lomira, Wis., introduced Grande Ultra Whey Protein Isolate (WPI). Containing essential amino acids, this fat-free and lactose-free ingredient is specifically designed for beverage applications requiring complete product clarity and a clean flavor. Finished products have lower astringency, a neutral flavor and clarity. The Grande system includes a strict chain that extends from the Grade A dairy farm through the production of natural white Italian cheese and Grade A whey proteins.

"Consumers have a desire to consume protein fortified beverages, but don't always want a milk shake type texture, which most manufacturers are producing today," says Applied Technology Manager Jeff Banes. "Grande's Ultra WPI allows manufacturers to create refreshing, clear, fruit flavored beverages that are easy to drink and quench your thirst, in addition to providing protein."

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