An R&D President's discovery

Three years ago, if you had told me I would be leading a sixty-person R&D facility that was purely focused on whey, my response would most likely have been: “What on earth could be so interesting about whey?

Niels Østergaard
Niels Østergaard Vice President R&D, Arla Foods Ingredients

By Niels Østergaard, Vice President R&D, Arla Foods Ingredients 

Discovery target
The whey matrix contains more than 100 polysaccharides, each of which plays a part in benefiting our lives almost from the moment we are born. 

These substances, which many of us are lucky enough to begin receiving directly from human milk, are used to encourage the healthy development and maintenance of our growth, our stomachs, our cognitive development, our immunity to disease and, undoubtedly, a great many more things we have yet to realise. 

All of these polysaccharide components fit into the puzzle of human life somewhere and somehow. By now, we have come to know quite a lot about some of them, but are still left wondering about others and, specifically, we’re curious about how they interact. We would like to know exactly how they influence the micro-organisms in our intestinal tracts to affect mood, growth, organ development and more.

Life ingredient
Far from being a waste product, therefore, whey is a fundamental ingredient in milk that gives rise to life as a human being. And companies like our own obtain whey after it is expelled from cheese curds during the cheesemaking process, breaking it down into its components and providing them to humans of all ages to bring them many of its special benefits.

It will never cease to amaze me how many different things whey – or, at least, its components – can do for our lives. As an ingredient for pediatric nutrition, for example, whey has been shown to contribute to allergy treatment and prevention, cognitive development and performance, gastrointestinal health, immunity and to providing low-protein infant formula.

For athletes, and in older people whose muscle mass gradually reduces with age, whey protein hydrolysate, in combination with physical activity, enhances muscle maintenance. And in medical applications, for example, extracting a protein called CGMP enables PKU (phenylketonuria – an inborn error of metabolism) patients to replace unpleasant free amino acid supplements with a good-tasting, natural protein that helps them to stick to the strict diet necessary to avoid potential cognitive impairment, attention problems and mood disorders.

Whey assists a wide variety of food manufacturers, too, with their production efficiency, quality and reformulations, substituting, for example, egg white with whey-derived proteins.

Still exploring
Even though we have conducted research for the past 30 years on whey proteins,  there are still plenty of undiscovered proteins and peptides in the matrix. We simply don’t know their biology and nutritional effects. And for most of these, we haven’t even begun to perform the research necessary to discover what they can do.

On the permeate side (de-proteinised whey), where the lactose used in pediatric products is, we’re learning more and more about the effects of different lactose qualities depending on the way it is produced. It’s here, too, we find a group of polysaccharides (see the Jargon Refresher below) that influence our stomach flora, playing a central role at the start of life, and which could be used later in life for people with disfunctional microbiota, stabilising the interaction between food and gut microbes for a healthier, more comfortable stomach.

So there are still plenty of opportunities to pull more out of something we have have traditionally seen as a simple raw material. From my own perspective, I’ve learned that whey is far from a waste product – instead, there is much more still to be discovered and applied.


What are polysaccharides?
A polysaccharide, also known as a glycan, is a carbohydrate (such as starch or cellulose) whose molecules are made of long chains of monosaccharide molecules (simple sugars such as glucose or fructose) bound together by special enzymes. It can be decomposed by hydrolysis.

This blog contains material and information intended for B2B customers, suppliers and distributors, and is not intended as information to the final consumers. 

About the blog

This blog is a medium for all industry experts to share knowledge about and viewpoints on whey protein and lactose - and, in particular, their documented or potential benefits to the world.

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