Whey to Go!

By Liz Campbell

Remember Little Miss Muffet? Most cheese makers would love to find a customer like her - someone who enjoys both curds and whey. "The majority of cheesemakers see whey as a liability because there's so much water in it," says George Haenlein, professor at the University of Delaware. "They usually feed it to the pigs."

But Haenlein and others are doing research into a product that is very high in protein and other nutrients and has "lots of wonderful uses." For example, one can treat whey like maple syrup is treated, put it through a semi-permeable filter to reduce the water content and concentrate the solids. Could this be a practical use for maple syrup equipment during the other three seasons? Ultra-filtration can produce dry whey - a useful industrial product. Whey powder contains approximately 50 percent of the nutrients in the original milk.

This form of whey is available in two main forms: isolate and concentrate. Whey protein isolate is the purest form of whey protein and contains between 90 to 95 percent protein. It contains little, if any fat or lactose. Whey protein concentrate can range between 25-89 percent and will contain some lactose, fat, and minerals. As the protein level increases, the amount of lactose decreases. The form most readily available as a protein powder supplement is 80 percent whey protein concentrate, often used by athletes to 'bulk up'.

Some cheese makers are taking advantage of the demand for this product. Fromagerie Tournevent in Quebec installed ultra-filtration equipment in order to produce Calcimil, essentially a neutraceutical protein and calcium supplement. "The problem is that the equipment is very expensive so the stuff is really expensive to produce," says John Eggena at Fromagerie Tournevent.

In Vermont, just across the border, Cabot Creamery built a whey-processing facility in 1999. "The farmers of Cabot were far-sighted enough to invest in whey-processing equipment," says Jed Davis, Director of Marketing at Cabot. "At that point whey disposal was becoming a real problem. We were shipping as far as Kentucky to get rid of it." Now, they produce both a concentrate and an isolate form of whey. The former is a powder which is generally used as a protein supplement. The isolate is sold as lactoferrin which has very good iron binding properties. It is used as an ingredient in infant formulas and nutrition drinks and the largest market seems to be in Asia.

Bob Reese, of Vermont Butter and Cheese echoes most cheesemakers when he says they are too small to install such equipment. And they simply can't dump whey. "The biological oxidation demand (BOD) would kill a lot of other organisms if it was just dumped into streams or sewers," he explains. "Our whey is high in lactic acid so it goes to local farmers. It costs us two or three cents per gallon to dispose of it. If I could just turn that to break even it would make a huge difference."

In fact, acid whey can't be re-used easily. Acid whey is produced from Cottage, Ricotta or other fresh cheeses manufactured principally by acid coagulation (the pH of the milk is lowered by microbial fermentation process in which some of the lactose is converted to lactic acid). Sweet whey is produced from the preparation of Cheddar, Mozzarella, Swiss or other cheeses made principally with rennet type enzymes (casein-coagulating enzyme preparations).

Whey can be used to make some cheeses. Ricotta is Italian for "recooked" because it is made by "cooking" whey that is produced when the curds are separated for cheese. The inoculated bacteria in whey are allowed to further ferment the liquid as it sits at room temperature for 12-24 hours. During that time, the remaining sugars are converted to lactic acid which lowers the pH of the whey. Heating the acidified whey denatures the protein (the same process that makes egg white coddle when it cooks) causing it to precipitate out as a fine curd. Note that you can't make Ricotta from whey left over from making an acid precipitated cheese such as panir, queso blanco or whole milk Ricotta, because you've already precipitated out all the protein using acid and heat.

In Norway and Greece, the whey is also used to make cheese. For more than 300 years Norwegian farmers have made cheeses from cow's milk and goat's milk and turned the leftover whey into different kinds of foods. Many strange concoctions were once made and some of these are still available regionally. The simplest process was to just boil out most of the water from the cow's whey, and shape the remainder into a sweet, low-fat, pale reddish brown 'cheese'. This is the most basic type of brown cheese and is simply called Mysost, 'whey cheese'. By mixing in cream, or using goat's milk, or a combination of goat's and cow's milk, and/or by leaving more water in the mix, different brown cheeses are produced. Gjetost is a full-fat whey cheese with a fudge-like texture and sweet caramel flavor that develops during production when the cheese mass is heated to the point where the milk sugars begin to caramelize.

For most cheesemakers, whey disposal has become a part of the cost of doing business. Finding creative alternatives is still a challenge. Have you an innovative solution? Share it with fellow cheesemakers through our newsletter.


Whey products:

  • Ricotta Cheese: Ricotta made from the whey of different cheeses has different tastes and textures. Mozzarella whey is traditionally used in Italy. Feta makes the strongest tasting ricotta.
  • Rivella: Ingredients like lactose, lactic acid and minerals make Rivella a beneficial drink from a nutritional viewpoint. Used by sports enthusiasts, it is readily absorbed because lactose and lactic acid have a positive effect on intestinal flora.
  • Calcimil: Typical of a range of whey protein supplements favoured by body builders and those concerned with boosting their protein intake. Whey proteins can differ dramatically from one another depending on the processing method and the total protein content. For example, whey protein can exist as simple whey powder (30% or less total protein content), whey protein concentrate (30-85% protein) or whey protein isolate (90% or higher protein content).
  • Gjetost: Norwegian cheese made by boiling the leftover whey of cow's and/or goat's milk until the lactose caramelises (which gives it it's light brown appearance). The cheese is then poured into rectangular moulds and left to cool. The outer surface is similar to that of a decorated cake. The taste resembles a slightly sour but sweet caramel with a smooth texture similar to fudge. It can be shaven into thin slices and eaten with coffee for breakfast. At Christmas it is a favourite with spiced fruit cake. It is also considered ideal as a sweet fondue or a sauce for game. Mariners traditionally took this cheese with them on long voyages.
  • North Country Organic Fertilizers and Dirt Works: Organic fertilizers produced in Vermont which contain organic whey protein. Dirt Works is designed for use on acid loving plants like Azaleas, Rhododendrons, Blueberries, etc.
  • Whey cream butter: Cabot Creamery in Vermont adds a small amount of whey cream to their butter before filtering the rest. It gives the butter an old-fashioned, uncultured flavour, according to Jed Davis.
  • Lactoferrin: Whey protein isolate produced from filtration, used in infant formulas and popular in Asia when lactose intolerance is a problem. The isolate form, being very high in protein, is much prized by body builders.


Reprinted, with permission, from the newsletter of the American Cheese Society, second quarter 2004.


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