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Working with Whey

January 18, 2012

As a child, like most children, I was confused about the nursery rhyme, Little Miss Muffet. The rhyme is quite old, having been first published in 1805, so the language is somewhat archaic.[1]

Little Miss Muffet by John Everett Millais (1829–1896)

("Little Miss Muffet," Oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829–1896), via Wikimedia Commons))

Specifically, I was confused about two things. Was "tuffet" actually a word for backside? What was the unappetizing concoction, "curds and whey?"

A tuffet is actually a short footstool. Curds and whey are what we now call cottage cheese, although the present consumer food product has more curds, and less whey. This brings us to an entrepreneur's moment when we ask about what happens to all that whey. Whey is a byproduct of all cheesemaking operations, not just those for cottage cheese.

Whey contains about 20% of the milk protein, nearly all the milk sugar, and approximately 50% of milk's nutrient content.[2] The watery whey can be processed to yield a useful protein supplement for both humans and animals. The sugar content of whey allows its biochemical conversion, by fermentation, into ethanol.[3] Much whey is simply sprayed onto fields as fertilizer. Now, scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute have developed methods to convert whey into an environmentally friendly food packaging material.[4]

As a casual stroll through any supermarket and pharmacy will show, polymeric materials are used extensively for food and drug packaging. There are pouches for food, and blister packs for pills. These polymeric films protect the products from environmental onslaughts of moisture, oxygen, and chemical and biological contamination. These films are often built through a lamination of several materials, each good at blocking a particular material from the environment. Transparency is important, since the consumer likes to know what she's buying.

Ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) copolymers are often used as an oxygen barrier material. Polychlorotrifluoroethylene, trade-named Aclar®, is often used as a moisture barrier material. The European Union has a "Wheylayer" project with a goal of replacing oxygen barrier petrochemical polymers with whey. The advantages would be lower cost and biodegradability.[4]

To make a barrier layer from whey, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV (Freising, Germany) first purified sweet whey and sour whey to produce high purity whey protein isolates. They subsequently tried different modification methods to obtain suitable proteins with excellent film-forming properties. The proteins alone cannot make suitable barrier films, so they needed to add other additives, which were also bio-based.[4]

After some optimization of composition, the Fraunhofer researchers produced an economically viable, industrial-scale method for application of the whey protein coatings to other plastic films to produce multilayer barrier films that are flexible and transparent. There is a pending patent on this technology.[4]

Food packaging film made from whey

Food packaging film made from whey, along with the makings for a very tasty stew.

(Fraunhofer Institute Image))

The market for such a product is considerable. It's estimated that Germany alone will use more than 640 square kilometers of oxygen barrier films of EVOH in 2014.[4] Whey materials may be suitable also as a replacement for EVOH in thermoformable composites. The volume of these composites is estimated to be 93,158 tons in 2014, and substitution of whey material will reduce this huge carbon footprint.[4]


  1. Little Miss Muffet page on Wikipedia.
  2. Pavel Jelen, "Industrial whey processing technology: an overview," J. Agric. Food Chem., vol. 27, no. 4 (July 1979), pp 658-661.
  3. The New Zealand Institute of Chemistry, Chemical Processes in New Zealand, The Manufacture Of Ethanol From Whey.
  4. Film coatings made from whey, Fraunhofer Institute Press Release, January 2, 2012.

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