When milk is processed, for example into cheese, cottage cheese or Greek yoghurt, a yellowish liquid called whey is left behind. Lactose, minerals and vitamins remain in the whey, as do proteins which do not coagulate into cheese. “In recent years, whey proteins have been found to contain many beneficial properties,” says Recover4Benefit project coordinator Maja Zupančič Justin, Head of Biotechnology at Arhel in Slovenia. “These include favourable amino acid composition, which is essential in muscle mass regeneration.” Whey proteins are also called functional proteins because of their antimicrobial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities. Often however, whey is treated as processing waste, and sent to treatment plants or converted into energy in a biogas plant. More than 200 m tons of whey is produced annually worldwide, and less than 50 % is used for human consumption. “We thought that it would make more sense to pre-extract the proteins and use them in high value-added products,” explains Zupančič Justin. “Whey proteins, after all, make up 20 % of milk proteins.” Policymakers, scientists and the food industry are all looking into ways to meet growing global demand for protein, which is forecast to double by 2050. As a result, alternative proteins are emerging as an exciting new business opportunity within the traditional food system.
Efficient protein extraction
A key challenge however is the fact that whey is composed of more than 90 % water, and whey proteins make up less than 1 % of whey. Extracting these proteins, while preserving their functional properties, requires advanced technological procedures. “The situation is even more complicated if we want to isolate just a single protein,” adds Zupančič Justin. To address this, Arhel has developed a selective protein extraction process using ion-exchange chromatography technology to separate molecules. One of the benefits of this innovation, according to the project coordinator, is that it can operate at an industrial scale, running high flow rates resulting in shorter processing times. The Recover4Benefit project was launched in August 2019 to study the technological, market and implementation obstacles that needed to be overcome before commercialisation. “As part of this project, we carefully studied the current pilot production process and highlighted any bottlenecks we found,” Zupančič Justin points out. “We also performed a detailed review of competitive technological processes and products on the market. A big challenge was obtaining detailed market data. We also met with stakeholders and attended industry conferences.”
Getting market ready
Completed in January 2020, the Recover4Benefit project developed a framework business model with defined products to be obtained from whey. These include protein isolates, which can be used as dietary supplements and food ingredients, as well as a roadmap towards eventual commercialisation. “This project enabled us to take a much broader approach to the development of a business idea than would otherwise have been possible,” comments Zupančič Justin. “All too often, start-ups focus only on solving technical challenges.” The firm has successfully conducted extensive analyses of the protein products identified, which have confirmed the high quality of the products. “We have also received concrete interest from potential buyers,” she highlights. “Our next step will be to optimise the production process and ensure sufficiently high production capacity.”
Recover4Benefit, whey, lactose, dairy, cheese, protein, isolate, chromatography, minerals, vitamins