Acid whey is typically thought of as an unwanted offshoot of dairy products, such as cream cheese and Greek yoghurt. In recent years, producers' interest in acid whey has grown due to increasing demand by dairy consumers for Greek yoghurt and acid-coagulated cheeses, research shows. To date, the dairy industry has struggled to find a sustainable application for its use.
Recent research by Rocha-Mendoza et al (2021) sought to examine the composition, utilisation and health benefits of acid whey to understand its potential as an upcycled ingredient in various food and beverage categories. The study found promising results that suggest acid whey can offer several health benefits, including human gut health, antibacterial effects and cognitive development for babies.
Acid whey: An environmentally harmful dairy by-product
Acid whey can, for example, be used to make biogas and thereby give some useful energy, but it is a waste stream that is costly to handle. Manufacturers must be careful when disposing of acid whey as it can damage ecosystems if large quantities enter the world’s waterways.
“There can be severe damaging effects when acid whey seeps into waterways: sugars deplete oxygen from the water when it’s decomposed, and this results in taking oxygen away from fish and marine life, as well as creating blooming of algae which consumes the sugars,” says Dr Karim Engelmark Cassimjee, CEO and co-founder of EnginZyme, a Swedish cell-free biomanufacturing process developer.
Dr Karim Engelmark Cassimjee, CEO and co-founder of EnginZyme
As more algae grow, more light is prevented from entering the water, damaging the water ecosystem if the pollution is not controlled, Cassimjee adds.
Finding sustainable solutions for acid whey
Due to the rise in calls for these dairy products, manufacturers are now exploring how they can valorise acid whey, or in other words, reuse the waste material and convert it into more useful ingredients for the food and beverage industry. Ultrafiltration techniques and biodigesters are relevant approaches to provide an energy source in production facilities and lower transportation costs as producers seek to reduce their environmental impact.
EnginZyme is exploring how to transform acid whey, a by-product from the manufacture of certain foodstuffs, into valuable ingredients that can be used in the formulation of health-centric food products.
"Food involves way more chemical processing solutions than many realise and has a significant sustainability impact,” says Cassimjee. “The problems with acid whey are apparent in the dairy industry, and a process to create value from this waste stream has been sought for many years,” adds Cassimjee.
One-third of food produced for human consumption goes to waste, a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations finds, with some of this waste occurring during the production and supply chain.
“To reduce this waste, improving efficiency and finding solutions to reduce waste in the processing are vital, and our technology can help solve these problems,” Cassimjee continues.
Enzyme technology turns acid whey waste into value
EnginZyme will utilise its patented, cell-free biomanufacturing platform to turn enzymes into a solid heterogeneous material. The company’s technology works by fixing enzymes into a reactor’s solid support material. Typically, manufacturers add enzymes into food directly during the production process. However, EnginZyme noted that this is an expensive approach that results in a lack of control.
EnginZyme uses an enzyme type already known and proven to work. By adding its technology, the process can be controlled and made cost-efficient. The components of acid whey are enzymatically converted to more valuable compounds. The main contrast to other techniques, Cassimjee says, is that the starting material is clearly defined: it is the whey coming out of the dairy processes instead of a mixture that the company has formulated.
Industry collaboration with packaging giant TetraPak
The Swedish startup has teamed with the food processing and packaging name, TetraPak, to develop processes using enzymes. The duo has recognised that these naturally-occurring, non-toxic biological molecules can enhance or act as an alternative to chemical catalysts in food production that can use significant amounts of energy.
The partnership between EnginZyme and TetraPak is working to solve how to convert acid whey produced from fresh cheese and yoghurt—around 22,500 million litres annually—into an added value ingredient such as prebiotic fibre or reused in yoghurt production to improve the nutritional yoghurt quality.
“We realised early that enzymes could solve many of the challenges the food and beverage industry is facing and that consumers are asking for,” says Cassimjee. “While many other players fail to find a processing solution that allows enzymes to be utilised efficiently and controlled because it is too costly, our two companies, with their respective strengths, have found a cost-effective and scalable solution,” Cassimjee adds.
Tetra Pak is working to integrate EnginZyme’s biotechnology into a direct product or waste stream solutions that can be easily integrated with existing manufacturing operations or scaled as new processing lines.
Contributing to environmental progress
With this partnership, EnginZyme says it can see that these processes are possible to do, they can be scaled in significant production, and most importantly, for commercial success, they are cost-efficient.
“The opportunities in the future are endless, but given the global challenges we are facing, being able to reduce waste streams and find effective vegan proteins with the power of enzymes will have a significant impact on our daily lives,” Cassimjee says.