Prescribed some 2,500 years ago by Hippocrates to fight fatigue, prevent infections and disease, whey has medicinal uses that stretch back millennia. More recently, in the 17th and 18th centuries, whey was noted as a functional drink and was served in fashionable whey houses and inns. Yet despite its recognized health benefits, whey on an industrial scale was considered a nuisance by the dairy industry, and treated as a waste stream that was fed to the pigs or applied to the land.

Change of Wheys

Global Whey Demand

Today, whey and whey derivatives are highly valued co-products of the cheese and casein production processes. Healthy and rich in protein, lipids, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, a wide range of whey and whey-derived products are meeting the ever-changing demands of the food, dairy and nutritional supplement markets.

From bars and beverages to bakery, snacks and cereals, whey products provide protein and energy to athletes and body builders, the health minded and aging population. Consumers across the globe are seeking high-protein snacks that satiate, and there is increased demand for products that meet the protein demands of growing middle class economies, and for foods and supplements that help to meet basic nutritional needs in developing countries.

Out of the Whey

Just about every component in whey is considered to have either nutritional or health-improving benefits, and each can be isolated using modern industrial processes. Simple whey powder, from which only water has been removed, can provide dairy flavor in bakery and snack applications, and may replace skim milk powders in formulation. Whey can also be demineralized to varying degrees for use in infant formulas with finely controlled mineral compositions. Whey proteins may be concentrated using separation technologies, such as membrane filtration, to obtain whey protein concentrates (WPC 35-80) or whey protein isolates (WPI 85-90) that are used in a multitude of high-protein products. Individual whey proteins, such as the immune-stimulating protein lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase and bovine serum albumin, can be isolated and purified using a combination of membrane filtration and chromatography.

Lactose and minerals, including calcium and phosphorus, can be obtained from whey permeate – the liquid that remains after the production of WPCs and WPIs. Membrane filtration, evaporation, crystallization and washing and separating technologies are used to harvest lactose from whey permeate.  As the major component in whey, lactose has multiple uses in the food and pharmaceutical sectors. Lactose is far less sweet than sucrose and is exploited as a sugar substitute in confectionary and other foods. It is used in infant milk formulas, acts as a carrier in pharmaceutical tablets and is used to standardize milk powders.

Whey applications

Whey More Protein

Whey proteins contain all 20 amino acids that our bodies need, and they are particularly rich in branched chain amino acids that directly form new muscle tissue. Relied on by athletes and body builders to promote lean muscle growth and to aid recovery after exercise1, whey proteins have long been key components of sports nutrition products. Consumption of whey proteins can also help to prevent muscle loss in the elderly1. ‘Popular consumer use of whey protein powder is to hydrate it in beverages,’ comments Carrie O’Neal, team leader for the Dairy Ingredient Team (DIT). ‘Whey protein has good solubility when not denatured. Exposure to excessive heat will denature proteins therefore during the manufacture the focus is on providing a process that minimizes the heat treatment required to produce a high quality product.’

Whey constituents have been shown to improve nutrition in regions of food scarcity. A recent scientific study found that feeding a specially developed supplement containing whey protein concentrate and whey permeate to seriously malnourished children in Malawi and Mozambique helped the children to recover from the effects of malnutrition and also improved their subsequent growth2

Target group of whey

Whey to Go

The ability to maintain the highest quality whey products from farm to formulation requires a combination of technology and end product know-how and expertise. Advances in separation and protein fractionation technologies such as microfiltration (MF) and ultra/diafiltration (UF/DF) have enabled production of high-protein and low-fat whey protein concentrates (WPCs and WPIs). Upstream pre-treatments such as clarification, cream separation and bacteria removal may enhance end powder product quality and membrane performance. Advanced drying technologies allow flexible production, from high density, non-agglomerated powders, to agglomerates that are coarse, free flowing and dustless.

Paving the Whey

Working closely with customers, GEA offers complete whey handling, separation (mechanical and filtration), drying and packaging technologies for whey-based ingredients. Our manufacturing solutions for whey proteins meet optimum quality requirements, and take into account every consideration, from the mechanical impact on product quality, to hygienic plant design.

GEA’s expertise includes an innovative dairy microfiltration process technology that improves product yield and operating efficiency whilst reducing capital and operating costs. The technology can also be used to separate whey proteins directly from milk known as ‘native whey’, independently of cheese production. GEA’s advanced spray drying control technology, DRYCONTROL™, allows the spray dryer to be utilized at maximum capacity and precisely controls residual moisture in the powder.  

Whey Forward

‘GEA can offer a wide range of technologies for the production of whey products’, Carrie O’Neal notes. ‘For the design of a plant we view the process as a whole, making sure the design is of the highest hygienic standards and each technology is designed to optimally work together to make high quality product at the lowest cost to our customers.’ 


1 Solak B. B, Akin N., Health Benefits of Whey Protein: A Review. Journal of Food Science and Engineering 2 (2012) 129-137

2 Stobaugh H.C., Ryan, K. N. et al. Including whey protein and whey permeate in ready-to-use supplementary food improves recovery rates in children with moderate acute malnutrition: a randomized, double-blind clinical trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2016 Mar;103(3):926-33.

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