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Whey Could be Key to Barrier Coatings

Published on 2003-09-30. Author : SpecialChem

FRESNO, Calif., Sept. 29 (AScribe Newswire) -- In Miss Muffet's day, whey was eaten along with curds. But until recently many commercial cheese manufacturers in the United States have treated whey as sewage or animal feed.

Now, new uses for the cheesemaking by-product are being developed at the UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology aimed at giving whey added value and providing dairies a needed economic boost.

The UC Agricultural Issues Center (AIC) has published an AIC Issues Brief that reports the potential gains to producers from new uses of whey. Economists calculated the cost of research and development, which began at UC Davis in 1990 and was estimated through 2005, to be $4.9 million. Financial support flows from the dairy industry and consumers through producer and processor assessments. Support also comes from grants and overhead paid by the University of California.

"Even with our narrow measure of research benefits, ... the return on investment in research may be significant if the new technologies are adopted by industry for only a few years," say the authors, AIC policy analyst Fiona Hutchinson, AIC postgraduate researcher Joseph Balagtas, UC Davis food science professor John Krochta and AIC Director Daniel Sumner.

To make cheese, manufacturers add an enzyme to milk, causing it to curdle. The curds are processed into cheese. The watery liquid leftover is whey.

Due to the development of new refinement techniques, as well as increasing awareness of the environmental and financial costs of whey disposal, manufacturers have found it profitable to process whey into high-protein products for use as food ingredients. For example, whey protein is used in bakery products, infant formulas and energy bars. Nevertheless, currently about 30 percent of whey is not sold. In addition, as cheese production grows to meet increased consumer demand, more whey is produced.

UC Davis scientists developed and hold patents on processes in which whey can be made into films and coatings for food products and plastics. The researchers believe that three new uses for whey could be implemented by industry in 2004:

- Oxygen-barrier coatings on food. For example, coating snack peanuts and nuts to be used in candy with the refined and processed whey film. The coating protects nuts from oxygen that causes rancidity and therefore extends the shelf life of the nuts or confection.

- Gloss coatings on candy. Candy manufacturers are looking for an alternative to food-grade shellac, an imported glaze made from the resinous secretions of the lac insect. The whey alternative will be a domestic product and will not have shellac's tight environmental regulations.

- Oxygen-barrier coatings on plastics. Most plastics that are good moisture barriers are poor oxygen barriers. Whey coating for plastic developed by UC Davis research provides an oxygen barrier and may substitute for current technologies that make plastic non- recyclable. "We see this as a win-win-win situation," said Krochta, in whose lab these innovations were developed. "Farmers would benefit from the increased market for whey, food processors benefit with less expensive and more environmentally sound products, and consumers benefit from higher food quality. There is also an overall benefit to the state's economy."

Research on applications for the new technologies is continuing in Krochta's lab, even as scientists are working with the food industry to commercialize the first three applications. Three additional potential applications of whey are being investigated at the UC Davis lab: moisture barriers for food, anti-microbial coatings on cheese, and edible or biodegradable films and containers.

The AIC Issues Brief concludes that higher whey demand will result in higher whey prices, which would be offset in part by lower cheese prices as cheese manufacturing increases to meet whey demand. The likely increase in U.S. demand for whey from these new innovations is 3 percent, according to the study's authors. Ultimately, the researchers estimate in the AIC Issues Brief that conservative implementation of just the three new uses for whey would increase annual U.S. dairy farm revenue $10 million and California dairy farm revenue $1.9 million. Adoption of other concepts being developed by the Krochta lab would further increase revenue. The new uses for whey also reduce the costs of manufacturing candy and plastic products.

Additional data from the study are in the AIC Issues Brief titled "Potential Gains to Producers from New Uses for Whey," which is available online at http://aic.ucdavis.edu (click "Issues Briefs").

The UC Agricultural Issues Center, based at UC Davis, conducts research and outreach programs on issues central to maintaining California agriculture's competitive edge. The center provides broadly based and objective information about these issues and their significance for California's economy and natural resources.

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