FOR JESSICA ZIMMERMAN, a fifth-grader at Northside Elementary School in Middleton, Wis., lunch is the most trying meal of the day. Because of a rare genetic condition that makes protein act like poison inside her body, Jessica can’t eat most of the things fifth-graders eat: no hot dogs, no chicken strips, no eggs, milk or cheese. If she were to eat any of these foods, an amino acid called phenylalanine would collect in her bloodstream and travel straight to her brain, where it would cause her to lose concentration on her studies and play havoc with her emotions.
Instead, Jessica follows a prescribed diet stricter than any vegan’s. A typical packed lunch includes a sandwich of artificial cheese on homemade, protein-free bread, a piece of fruit and mineral water. But the really awful part is what she must drink: a foul-smelling, milky-white beverage that provides virtually all of her dietary protein. Blended fresh daily by her mother, Ann, the beverage is a cocktail of amino acids specially designed for people with Jessica’s condition, known as phenylketonuria, or PKU. Jessica drinks this concoction three times a day, even though she hates the way it tastes and how it makes her breath smell.
At school, kids sometimes teased her for drinking “baby formula,” and now she refuses to drink it there, opting to wait until she gets home. But without her mid-day dose of amino acids, Jessica’s mind drifts in afternoon classes.
“Controlling Jessica’s phenylalanine levels poses constant dilemmas no kid should have to face,” Ann Zimmerman says. “A small Rice Krispie treat or a small order of French fries is a rare delight, which requires Jessie to be extra diligent that day. She never gets a day off. Not on her birthday, not on Halloween, not on Christmas.”
It’s unfair, Ann thinks, that food could be so cruel.
IN A LABORATORY-CUM-KITCHEN in Babcock Hall, Kathy Nelson, a researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, measures ingredients on a digital scale before throwing them in a mixing bowl. She’s making a batch of strawberry pudding, her favorite in a line of foods she designed for Jessica Zimmerman and others with PKU. These items may soon be the first protein-rich foods Jessica ever eats.
Nelson’s foods contain a secret ingredient: a unique protein derived from whey, the liquid byproduct of cheesemaking.
For the 15,000 people in the United States with PKU, protein is usually a problem because their bodies lack the enzyme responsible for breaking down phenylalanine, one of the 20 major amino acids that form proteins. All of the proteins we eat in everyday foods contain phenylalanine, and because of that, diet is a chore for people with PKU. A little phenylalanine is essential. But excess amounts can stay in the body indefinitely and interfere with brain function. Too much phenylalanine leads to “an inability to concentrate and focus,” says Sally Gleason, a nutritional counselor and case manager who works with individuals with PKU at UW-Madison’s Waisman Center, one of the nation’s premier centers for PKU research. “They also face emotional problems and depression.” The only solution for Jessica is to heavily supplement her diet with the amino-acid shake, which is specially formulated to exclude phenylalanine.
In the late 1990s, however, CALS food scientist Mark Etzel found another option: a protein known as glycomacropeptide. GMP turns out to be the only dietary protein in nature that doesn’t contain phenylalanine. And the only place you can find GMP is in whey, which is produced when milk curdles to form cheese curds. Working for the WCDR, a largely farmer-funded organization dedicated to supporting the dairy industry, Etzel developed a method to isolate and purify large quantities of GMP from whey, some 22 billion pounds of which are generated by Wisconsin’s cheese plants every year. In fact, for every one pound of cheese, dairy plants end up with nine pounds of whey.
Despite seemingly limitless quantities of it, the protein in liquid whey is too dilute to be of significant nutritional value as is. It’s also full of fats, sugars and minerals that are less than ideal for human consumption, Miss Muffet aside. For years, cheesemakers have done little with this haul other than throw it on their fields or feed it to pigs.
“The point of (Etzel’s project) was to find something special in whey, a waste product that we literally have tons of here in Wisconsin,” says Denise Ney, a CALS nutritional scientist who studies the effect of GMP on the body. “And he found it.”
Whey’s rags-to-riches story traces to the 1970s, when researchers began perfecting the technologies to isolate and purify its proteins, for the first time making it possible to use them to enrich other foods. Bodybuilders were the first to catch on: in the 1980s, they recognized the utility of whey protein to help muscles recover from strenuous workouts, and their enthusiasm for the product helped it enter the mainstream. Soon, energy bars and sports drinks began including whey protein as a chief ingredient. One of those drinks, formulated by the WCDR and produced by the Babcock Hall dairy plant, is now consumed by athletes on the Badger football, basketball and hockey teams after workouts—a Wisconsin version of Gatorade that goes by the utilitarian name of Recovery Drink.
“It’s been great for us,” says Ben Herbert, assistant strength and conditioning coach for the UW football team. “A lot of these supplements don’t taste very good. This gives us what we need, and the guys really like to drink it.”
But whey protein is also present in an astonishing number of everyday foods, from ice cream to infant formula. This proliferation of uses has, for the most part, been a boon for the dairy industry. Unprecedented global demand drove the price of dried whey to a record high of 78 cents per pound last April, more than triple its long-term average.
This increase has been a significant factor behind the rising price farmers receive for milk, says Brian Gould, a professor of agricultural and applied economics. “For every 10-cent increase in the price of dried whey, the class III milk price increases by 60 cents,” explains Gould. In Wisconsin, where a vast majority of the milk is class III milk—the type used for making cheese—most farmers received a 20 percent raise over their 2006 earnings thanks to whey.
Etzel says one reason for the boom is the versatility of dairy proteins. “One of the nice things about dairy proteins is that because cows are mammals, like humans are, they have a lot of biological functions in humans that you wouldn’t find in a plant protein, like soy,” he says. Previously, he developed a method to purify lactoferrin, a protein found in whey and human breast milk that is known to boost immunity in children and cancer patients. To help find uses for GMP, “we have medical doctors, health care professionals, food-product developers, nutritional scientists and then me working on protein purification.”
It’s that broad approach that gave Etzel the opportunity to meet patients with PKU, which he says was a transformative moment in his career. “It’s so rare when you are doing basic science that you come in contact with people who are suffering that you can help,” he says.
IN THE PAST, babies born with PKU became mentally disabled before anything could be done to help them. Unable to process the proteins in breast milk, infants with PKU were inadvertently poisoned by their mothers’ milk practically from day one. With the advent of genetic screening in the 1960s, doctors are able to identify the condition with a simple blood test and quickly intervene. Breast-feeding is replaced by bottles of special formula—a baby’s version of the amino-acid cocktail that Jessica Zimmerman drinks every day. “Jessica was born on a Saturday,” recalls Ann Zimmerman. “She was on-diet the following Thursday.”
To ensure that she is not getting too much phenylalanine, every item that crosses Jessica’s lips must be measured and recorded in a food diary. In a culture that often revolves around food, she is a forced bystander. “Everywhere you go there’s food,” says her mother. “That’s one thing you start to notice right away. For instance, if someone shows up at soccer practice with cupcakes, and I have nothing to give Jessie, she has to say, ‘That’s okay,’ and then sit there and watch them all eat it. That is the hardest part, if you ask me, the total lack of spontaneity.”
Ann Zimmerman is also concerned with her daughter’s approaching teen years, when kids naturally rebel against rules. Just as their peers may feel the temptation of cigarettes or alcohol, PKU teens can succumb to the allure of illicit foods. Normally, going off-diet at this age causes only temporary problems, but on rare occasions, a teenager’s indiscretions can lead to permanent brain damage.
And along with worries come daily hassles and headaches. To make Jessica’s formula, the family must pack a blender, pitcher and special cup, as well as a large container of powdered amino acids. The latter always raises questions from airport security guards, even though the family carries a doctor’s note explaining Jessica’s condition. Being able to meet Jessica’s needs with a pudding cup or granola bar made with GMP “would be so welcome,” says Ann Zimmerman.“It would really free people up and give them more independence.” Short of a treatment or cure for the underlying condition, it’s what parents like her want the most for their kids: to experience the pleasure of eating.
That’s where Kathy Nelson comes in. Before joining the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, she spent ten years developing desserts at Pillsbury, and her role is to be part researcher and part foodie, creating new products that will be pleasing to consumers.
In 2001, Nelson turned her attention to improving the PKU diet. She began experimenting with GMP, but her first attempt at a GMP-fortified food, a loaf of bread, failed. “The more protein I added, the worse the bread turned out. The loaf would just collapse,” she says.
During the next three years, however, Nelson created crackers, fruit leather, chocolate and strawberry pudding, and two types of drinks using GMP. A small sample of PKU patients are currently testing those foods, replacing their amino acid drinks with GMP foods for a four-day trial. Ten patients have completed the trials, and early results have confirmed that GMP foods are safe and well-accepted.
According to Denise Ney, the UW-Madison professor of nutritional science who heads up the study, the ultimate goal isn’t to replace the amino acid drink entirely, but simply to develop some safe, tasty and convenient alternatives.
“I think GMP could replace about 50 percent of the amino acid drink,” she says. “Most people take two to three cups per day. In the future, maybe they would only have to take one or two cups per day, and just have some GMP pudding instead.”
Already, Cambrooke Foods, a Massachusetts company that manufactures low-protein foods for the PKU diet, is moving forward with the production of two GMP-fortified snack items, including Nelson’s chocolate pudding.
Meanwhile, longer-term research is exploring whey’s role in fighting some of the country’s biggest health problems. Recent scientific studies show that whey may help lower blood pressure, help patients with early-stage diabetes manage their glucose and insulin levels, and help dieters control their hunger. K.J. Burrington BS’84 MS’87, the WCDR researcher who formulated the Babcock Recovery Drink for the Badger athletics team, sees a possibility that the same drink that bulks up football players could help trim America’s ballooning waistline.
“It gives you a feeling of fullness,” she says. “It also helps you maintain muscle mass while losing fat.”
Beyond its food applications, whey also is proving to be a good feedstock for biofuel production. Its sugars can be turned into ethanol in a process that is cheaper than making the fuel from corn kernels. In consideration of these emerging uses, some dairy economists have even speculated that whey could eventually become the most valuable part of cheese, meaning that one day cheese might be made for the prime reason of generating whey. That’s a dramatic turnaround from the days of dumping the stuff down the drain. And for farmers, researchers and even a certain fifth-grade girl, that’s the whey they like it.
SIDEBAR — FINDING the WHEY
Whey protein shows up in all sorts of popular food items, including some that may surprise you, Here’s just a taste:
Kraft Fat-Free Ranch Salad Dressing
Whey, found fourth on the ingredient list, adds a creamy flavor and texture without adding any fat.
MLO Sports Nutrition Bio Protein Double Chocolate Bar
Whey protein – listed first among its five types of protein – is packed inside to help build and repair muscle after workouts.
Nestle Good Start Supreme Infant Forumla
This baby formula’s packaging highlights its “comfort proteins,” meaning whey proteins that have been processed for easy digestion.
Nabisco Chips Ahoy Chocolate Chip Cookies
Third-to-last on the ingredient list, whey helps cookies turn a tantalizing baked-to-perfection brown while adding caramel-like flavors.
Frito-Lay Doritos Nacho Cheese Tortilla Chips
Various forms of whey are listed seventh, 11th, and 31st of 32 ingredients. It’s added to help the seasoning blend disperse over and adhere to the chips, while complementing the snack’s cheesy flavor.
SIDEBAR– Whey Good Business? Not Always.
One year ago, Bill Hanson wasn’t thrilled about the emerging uses for whey protein. Whey almost put him out of business.
As owner of Arena Cheese, a small cheese plant in Arena, Wis., Hanson had plenty of whey around. But it was in liquid form, which sells at a fraction of the price of dried whey powder. Because Hanson didn’t own the equipment to concentrate or dry his whey, he was forced to sell it at basement rates. So while he paid higher prices for milk – partly due to the surging value of its whey proteins – he wasn’t recovering the value on the back end. In other words, he was getting squeezed by whey.
Last year, Hanson shared his financial woes with Randy Pittman, owner of nearby Mill Creek Cheese, who was facing the same tough reality. “We were both saying, ‘We have to do something about this.’ It was a survival thing,” says Hanson.
The two decided to split the purchase of a second-hand ultrafiltration system to concentrate their whey protein. Within seven weeks, they’d launched a new company, called Whey To Go. Hanson’s cheese plant was in the black the following month.
“We set the whole system up for less than half-a-million dollars,” says Hanson. “But for a small company, even coming up with that kind of capital is a difficult thing to do. However, to survive, (other small cheesemakers) are going to have to do something like this.”
John Umhoefer, director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, a 117-year old trade group that represents a majority of Wisconsin’s cheesemakers, confirms these are difficult times for small plants that don’t process their own whey.
“I hate to sound negative. This is a great market because the world wants our whey,” says Umhoefer. “However, I know of half a dozen companies expressing severe financial difficulty (due to the high price of whey).”
Fortunately, the price of dried whey has moderated somewhat since spiking last year. Experts predict it will settle somewhere around double its historical price, which may give small cheesemakers a respite – or at least a chance to map out a way forward with whey.