Whey: What is it Good For?

When I was doing some background reading on Beecher’s for my piece on their cheesemaking operation, I came across an article saying that Beecher's had to negotiate with the City of Seattle to be able to dump the whey from their cheesemaking process down the drain, into the city sewer system. I’d never really thought about this issue before, and I certainly hadn’t ever comprehended that the whey disposal problem is such a headache for large cheese producers. I looked into this a little bit and here’s what I found out.

If you’re familiar w/ cheesemaking you know that when milk converts to cheese, a lot of leftover liquid – whey – is generated in the process. Whey contains a lot of proteins, calcium and minerals, among other things, so it's more than just dirty water. When you make cheese in your kitchen, it’s not a big deal….but imagine a cheesemaking operation like Tillamook’s, where over 109 million gallons of milk were used to make the 94 million pounds of cheese they sold in 2003. According to this article, for every pound of cheese produced, nine pounds of whey result…that’s a lot of liquid.

So the question becomes – what to do with whey? In fact, there are a number of things you can do with it. Probably the least controversial thing to do is make whey into another product, and that’s where a lot of whey ends up, added to protein drinks and powders, or included as an ingredient in food products of all kinds. Some folks make whey cheese, which is essentially a process of condensing all of the solids left in the whey, common in Scandanavian countries. When I last visited the Tillamook factory, I saw some marketing materials for Tillamook “whey butter,” although I didn’t see any actual whey butter at the factory, and I’ve never seen any in a regular store. Whey can also be used as a supplement for animal feed as well. For example, Pierre Kolisch at Juniper Grove Farm feeds the whey from his cheesemaking operation to his Red Duroc pigs. Probably the most creative (and counterintuitive) product made with whey that I found is whey wine (yes, wine as in the alcoholic beverage).

On the one hand, fashioning whey into another saleable product is appealing to the cheesemaker's bottom line, but on the other hand, it takes more money to process that second product, and yet more money to market and sell it. Not every cheesemaker can afford to do that. That’s why a lot of whey is simply dumped…and therein lies a big problem. In some areas, the whey by-product from cheesemaking is disposed of by spreading it on open fields as a fertilizer. States where this is a common practice (such as Wisconsin) have regulations limiting the amount that can be spread due to the danger of altering the chemistry of the soil over the long term (not to mention the potential for affecting the groundwater supply). In places where whey is disposed of via the local sewer system (or the local river), significant treatment is required to neutralize the liquid for safe disposal both because of the organic compounds it contains (which bacteria thrive on) and because it is highly acidic. This article is very informative on disposal issues and goes into some detail about the potential toxicity associated with whey. A little more internet surfing turned up records of fines and citations that cheesemaking facilities have received because of the water pollution created by their whey dumping practices (for examples, see here and here).

I started investigating this issue out of curiosity...but this has turned into a reminder of the complexity of our relationship with the food we eat, and how far the implications of even the simple act of eating cheese can reach.