The ‘Valorlact’ project shows that it is possible to make use of over 80 percent of the whey from Basque cheese-making dairies
Making use of more than 80% of the whey produced at cheese-making dairies in the Basque Country and using it to produce foodstuffs for human and animal consumption is viable, as has been shown in the ‘Valorlact’ project funded by the European Commission’s Life+ programme. The results of the research show that the whey does not have to be regarded as a waste product and should be included in the food chain, which means a fresh business opportunity for the cheese-making and foodstuff production sectors. The programme has been coordinated by the Directorate for Foodstuff Quality and Industries of the Department of Economic Development and Competitiveness. AZTI, an expert R&D centre in marine and foodstuff innovation, has been responsible for the technical coordination, while the other participants have been Neiker-Tecnalia and the companies Iberlact and BM Ingeniería.
New foodstuffs, animal feed and the production of biogas are three of the main uses that the partners in the ‘Valorlact’ project are proposing in order to manage and make the most of the whey from the cheese-making dairies, which in the Basque case add up to about 130 facilities that generate about 32 million litres of whey every year. This by-product is the liquid resulting from the coagulation of the milk in the cheese-making process once the casein and the fat have been separated. So it is an organic element that is routinely regarded as a waste product and which could cause pollution if it is not properly dealt with. The project has been developed in the Basque Country but its results could be extended to the cheese-making and foodstuff sector in any region facing a similar problem.
Within the project, AZTI has developed new food prototypes; specifically, a dairy product that can be sliced and grated, a sauce with the flavour and aroma of mature cheese, a drink combining fruit juice, and a soluble product with cacao. These foods have been fully validated for consumption and their shelf life is over 35 days, and more than six months in the specific case of the soluble cacao. The tasting sessions have also revealed their acceptation among consumers in terms of their organoleptic properties. The concentrated whey content (20% of solid matter) is 21% in the case of the soluble cacao product, around 50% in the dairy product and the drink with fruit juice, and 62% in the case of the cheese-flavoured sauce.
Animal feed developed by Neiker-Tecnalia
The creation of feed for cattle is another of the applications demonstrated in ‘Valorlact’. Neiker-Tecnalia, the Basque Institute for Agricultural Research and Development, has developed nine different feeds containing 6% whey, and 12% whey protein concentrate (WPC35). The researchers have verified their viability as feed for milk sheep, laying hens and broiler chickens.
The results indicate that incorporating whey into the feed improves the yield across the parameters analysed: laying rate, daily intake, conversion index and daily weight gain. Specifically, the hens increase their laying rate by 9% with no effect on egg quality or size; the broilers increase their average daily weight gain by between 28% and 48% in the case of the whey or the WPC35, respectively, while the quality of the sheep’s milk increases as the levels of fat and protein are raised, but without any reduction in yield. So the animal feed industry has a new business opportunity since the whey is a raw material of high nutritional value that provides vitamins, minerals and functional proteins of interest in feed production.
The liquid whey for its part can be used as a liquid food for cattle. Neiker-Tecnalia has confirmed that it can be included in the diets of pigs, milk cows and beef cattle, goats and sheep. This use is of great interest for the small, sheep’s milk dairies that have their own flocks and which in the case of the Basque Country account for over 60% of them (82 cheese-making dairies). Every year these cheese-making dairies produce about 3,800 cubic metres of whey, which could be used as part of the food for the sheep, whose diet can include between two and three litres of whey per day.
Production of biogas and cutting of emissions
Another of the results of ‘Valorlact’ is the setting up of a pilot demonstration plant at the Vascolac cheese-making dairy located in Zamudio (Bizkaia). The plant has a filtering area for obtaining protein concentrates from whey, and a biogas (methane) production area. The gas is obtained using the whey collected directly from the cheese-making dairy as well as the permeate or residue resulting from the filtering process, with daily yields of around 0.26 and 0.29 cubic metres of methane per Kg, respectively.
In order to make the fullest use of the whey from Basque cheese-making dairies, the partners in the Valorlact project have come up with various alternatives for using it, both individually and collectively, including the setting up of a possible whey collecting plant that could also include some of the cheese-making dairies of other regions, such as those located in Cantabria. The process to obtain whey concentrates, which could be sold directly for animal feed and the production of foodstuffs as well as the obtaining of the product in powder form, would take place at these facilities. Other alternatives considered have been the collecting of the whey at the larger cheese-making dairies or the sale of pasteurised whey to local farms. All these proposals were included in an Action Plan submitted to the sector at an Expert Panel meeting held in December 2015.
Researchers calculate that with the putting into practice of the measures provided for in Valorlact, 500 tonnes of CO2 less would be released into the atmosphere, which would help to improve the environmental sustainability and the image of the cheese-making sector. What is more, it would help in order to comply with the legislation in force in the matter of waste and by-products, and create new jobs.
A food reserve of great value
During the cheese-making process, between 7 and 9 litres of whey are produced per litre of cheese produced. This liquid consists mostly of water (93-94%), but its solid component is a food reserve of great nutritional value. Its main components are lactose (4-5%), proteins (1.1-1.5%), fat (0.2-0.5%), vitamins and mineral salts, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus. One of its main high, added-value applications is the obtaining of protein concentrates and protein isolates which are used to produce foodstuffs and which have a market price of about 90 euro cents per kilo.