Whey into the mainstream

by David Phillips
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Not long ago people who worked to promote dairy ingredients worried about whey. They knew whey, a byproduct of cheese making, was an excellent protein source, but they worried consumers would not accept it. What little consumers new of the ingredient stemmed from references in nursery rhymes and perhaps its use as a component of animal feed.

Fast forward a few years and athletes have grown aware of the types and levels of amino acids in whey protein that make it an excellent source of readily available protein, which enables faster workout recovery and an increase in muscle mass. Products geared to athletes such as protein powder mixes, energy bars and even a few ready-to-drink beverages were introduced in niche markets such as vitamin and health food stores as well as health clubs. Whey also found a place as a functional ingredient in some food and beverage products targeting niche markets.

But now something else is happening. Whey is becoming the key component in foods and beverages geared toward mainstream consumers — those who are looking for a food or beverage that will provide a healthful dose of protein while helping them avoid high-calorie, low-nutrient snacking between meals.

Some recent examples may be found in the offerings of a small company in Deerfield Beach, Fla., called EB Performance, L.L.C.

“The EB in our name stands for everybody,” said Daniel Schapiro, co-founder of the company. “Our products are really designed for mainstream consumers.”

EB Performance makes a protein snack called PB & Whey Protein Bites, and its beverage line is called Whey Juice. Whey Juice is sold not only to collegiate athletic programs, but also to customers of Whole Foods Markets in Florida and in Whole Foods’ Southwest region. The company also said it is negotiating a transaction that would put Whey Juice, and a reduced-calorie version of the beverage, on the shelves of a California-based supermarket toward the end of the year.

EB’s story and others like it may indicate that whey has shaken off the old connotations and is now being embraced by mainstream consumers.

“I think we have moved from negative perceptions to neutral,” said Steve Dott, a sales and marketing manager with Grande Custom Ingredients, Lomira, Wis. “And I think, maybe, we are just starting to move from neutral to positive.”

Grande produces white Italian-style cheeses, and from that process’s whey stream, it also makes a portfolio of Grade A whey proteins designed to provide a variety of functional benefits to all kinds of food manufacturers. The products are sold under the Bravo brand.

“They can enhance texture, they can help control water and they can replace fat,” Mr. Dott said. His colleague, Jeff Banes, added that whey protein sometimes may replace two or more other ingredients therefore helping food manufacturers improve the appearance of their ingredient labels.

“I think there is a lot of general label cleanup going on right now,” Mr. Banes said. “Some food products have had ingredient statements that are three miles long. The manufacturers are now trying to clean those up and consolidate them.”

Recently, Grande introduced the Bravo 600 line, which allows for 100% replacement of cream in sauces, including Alfredo sauce. While Grande has been focused solely on whey protein concentrates, it is in the process of introducing a new line of whey protein isolates (W.P.I.s).

Newer technologies for processing and applications have helped bring about the kind of visibly clear, clean-tasting product performance that allows for products like Whey Juice, a fruit flavored beverage that EB Performance describes as light and refreshing. Mr. Schapiro’s business partner Nate Feldman, a licensed chiropractor, said the two were exercise partners seven years ago when they started tossing around the idea of creating a line of protein-based products.

“We were wondering why all the protein beverages had to be so heavy, like milkshakes,” Mr. Feldman said. “We thought ‘there’s got to be a way to make it taste like juice.’”

The answer lies in W.P.I.s, which deliver the nutritional benefits of whey protein in neutral tasting and stable forms for sports beverages and functional waters, said Carrie Schroeder, category marketing manager for Fonterra USA, based in Chicago.

Fonterra’s ClearProtein W.P.I.’s, specifically ClearProtein 8855, is among its fastest growing platforms because it allows beverage manufacturers to deliver protein enriched, crystal clear beverages.

“Unlike many of the protein beverages that are on the market, there is now an opportunity to deliver beverages that are not milky in flavor or appearance and that provide all the nutritional benefits of whey protein,” Ms. Schroeder said. “We are seeing protein fortified juices and functional waters as next on the beverage horizon. Flavors don’t have to be extremely tart (and even astringent) as they have sometimes been in the past for such products.”

This has been a boon for EB Performance. While the company’s use of natural ingredients has allowed it to pursue a niche market with collegiate sports programs, its real ambition is to get to that mainstream market.

Mr. Feldman said that in the end the key consideration is the same one that all food and beverage manufacturers continue to wrestle with — taste. EB is poised to roll out a new line of whey protein cookies called DynaBites later this year.

Fonterra has seen a steady growth in consumer awareness of the multiple benefits of protein, including sports performance, weight management, lean muscle mass retention, satiety, and general well being. Ms. Schroeder expects the understanding and appeal specifically around whey protein to continue to grow.

One particular area of interest is in the baby boomer population. As baby boomers age, health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer,

physical mobility and the loss of lean muscle mass (sarcopenia) become concerns. Food and beverage products featuring whey protein offer benefits that may target many of the issues older consumers face.

Whey protein also plays a role in weight management, because protein is a positive contributor to satiety. Because whey protein usually adds no fat and few calories to products, it also may have a role in weight maintenance and even weight loss.

With that marketing goal in mind, Next Protein, Inc., Carlsbad, Calif., and the manufacturer of Designer Whey, a whey-based beverage brand, has partnered with the reality television series “The Biggest Loser.”

The collaboration began a few years ago with The Biggest Loser Protein, a line of powder mixes for water- or milk-based beverages. Just last month, Next Proteins announced the addition of a line of protein bars to the Biggest Loser co-brand line. The products will be featured in the upcoming season of the television show and viewers at home will be encouraged to use the products, further pushing products featuring whey protein into the mainstream.

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