Designing Desirable Whey Proteins

From heart health to great tasting zero-fat ice cream, new whey protein ingredients find a role.

By Claudia O'Donnell, Contributing Editor

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"Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey." This 1805 poem long helped illustrate the relationship between curds (primarily casein proteins made into cheese) and the leftover whey components. Today, the "Miss Muffet Curds and Whey" rhyme doesn't begin to explain the exciting technological and nutritional advances occurring with whey proteins.

The worldwide market for whey powder, proteins and protein fractions is predicted to grow at a compounded annual rate of 4 percent to reach about $6.4 billion in 2014, according to a recent 3A Business Consulting report, "Global Opportunities for Whey and Lactose Ingredients 2010-2014." However, "high-end" protein products such as WPC 80 and isolates (whey ingredients of 80+ percent protein content) and whey hydrolysates are experiencing double-digit growth, primarily driven by sales in the nutritional area such as sports and energy products.

As reported in the October 2011 Food Processing article Whey's Numerous Health Benefits, whey proteins offers benefits to those recovering from muscle damage, whether due to accidents, surgery or strenuous exercise. Additionally, higher protein levels are needed by children and pregnant women to support tissue growth. Whey proteins are also attractive for muscle mass maintenance such as with dieters or with seniors fighting sarcopenia, muscle loss due to aging.

Continued interest in potential nutritional and medical benefits of whey proteins is indicated by a steady stream of clinical research. A few papers in 2012 alone are as follows.

One August 2012 study in the Journal of Nutrition  reports that high protein diets alleviate certain negative effects resulting from high-fat diets. Using mice, the researchers were investigating the role of the amino acid leucine in the diets. However results of the experiment were most positive for mice provided high-protein diets (in the form of whey protein). This study concludes that the positive effects of high-protein diets on traits associated with metabolic syndrome are likely due to beneficial effect of the high-protein diet on satiety.

A study in the upcoming December issue of the journal Appetite investigates how resistance training and whey protein consumption affect the antioxidant status and cardiovascular risk of overweight young men. The research looked at biological markers such as total antioxidant capacity, glutathione (an antioxidant), cholesterol and HDL ("good" cholesterol) levels before and after the trial and also compared to levels in control subjects not taking whey protein supplements. Bottom line, the researchers concluded that a combination of resistance training and whey protein consumption is more beneficial than resistance training alone in beneficially impacting these markers.

Although heart health benefits are not often directly linked to whey proteins, a paper in the June 2012 issue of the British Journal of Nutrition states that these ingredients reduce cardiovascular risk. Specific to their study was a look at how a proprietary whey-derived, bioactive peptide helped study participants with impaired arterial blood flow. Results show that the ingredient improves dilation of the inner lining (endothelium) of blood vessels. A normally functioning endothelium regulates platelet adhesion and blood coagulation.

As this proprietary peptide shows, advances in analytical techniques, separation technologies such as membrane filtration and the use of modification technologies to fine-tune dairy proteins are producing whey proteins with new functionalities tailor-made for specific applications.

Researchers at NIZO food research in the Netherlands have optimized protein properties such as solubility, bioactivity, gelling and emulsification. Specialized whey proteins under development and/or commercialized include ones with a 10-fold increase in gelling capabilities; others have increased solubility at low pHs; as well as hydrolysates that lower blood pressure, bind specific minerals or that enhance satiety.

Improving the taste of whey proteins and hydrolysates is also much researched. For instance, whey proteins are great candidates for low-fat and low-carb applications. However, when functioning as fat replacers, for example in an ice cream, the formulation of a zero-fat ice cream that also has great taste is the important goal, a key attribute of any ingredient not to be ignored.

Such advances are offering up sophisticated protein ingredients far beyond the simple whey from the days of Ms. Muffet.

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