In the Whey

I have been making my own yogurt now for several weeks.  I heat up the milk, cool down the milk, add a cup of yogurt from the prior batch and stick it in the turned-off oven. And, to my continuous shock and awe, the next morning it is yogurt. I am still amazed that this is such an easy process and that it works–even in those instances that I think I have screwed it up. But alas, I make yogurt. Really delicious, healthy yogurt with good ingredients. However, I also make whey. Quite a lot of it.  Especially since I strain and strain the yogurt for about 8 hours after I remove the freshly made yogurt from its little incubator.

The first week, I just threw out the whey because I didn’t know anything about it.  I didn’t know how long it would last in the fridge, how to store it, what to do with it, etc.  I figured, though, that more industrious people out there probably used the whey for stuff, so I hit the search engines and found a lot of really great, useful tips to using whey. Mostly the recommendation is to sneak it in as a liquid to things. So the second week of making yogurt, I kept the whey and added it to my chicken soup stock, spaghetti sauce, to deglaze pans…lots of things that would not be hurt by a bit of liquid. I just figured it was healthy and it did not affect the taste of anything.  Added protein and all that. I mean, my husband spends a lot of money on whey protein, so I thought win-win.

Then I boasted to my husband about all the little ways I had been sneaking the whey into our meals.  I realized, though that while I thought it was good for us, I couldn’t really explain in what way it was good for us.

Once again, I did some research.  I came across some disturbing information. It seems that there are two different types of whey out there–sweet whey (SW) that you get from making hard cheeses, and acid or sour whey (AW) that you get from making yogurt or cottage cheese. An oft mentioned and quoted article I came across entitled “Whey Too Much: Greek Yogurt’s Dark Side “ made it seem that the AW was a useless and dangerous by-product. Apparently, greek yogurt production has sky-rocketed and produced a large amount of AW. However, whereas the dairy industry has long since found buyers for SW, there has not been the same enthusiasm for AW as a source for extracting much of anything.  Article after article claimed that AW doesn’t have that much protein at all and that the AW was typically cast off as fertilizer, feed, or as enzymes for waste product.

The information that AW was really low in protein was pretty readily available in scores of publications and articles. But the information about what AW did have was more complicated to discover.  I found a lot of articles on whey–most of it from homesteading and food blogs with very clever titles with cute whey puns (how could you not, really? The puns practically write themselves).  These are great resources with a lot of great ideas, but, not surprisingly, not a lot of scientific information. I eventually came across the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, which is part of the University of Wisconsin, and this led me to some great information that I felt was trustworthy.

Generally speaking, AW and SW  are similar in that they are about 95% water. However, as the name would imply, AW is much more acidic, with AW in general having a pH of 5.5 or less with Greek Yogurt  AW coming in at a pH of 4.2.  SW has a pH of around 6.0. Some of the articles I came across were quick to point out that AW is as acidic as orange juice… and I almost parroted that information right back to you. But then it occurred to me that I now know how acidic the AW is, but just how acidic was orange juice?  This chart shows that the above claim is a bit of a stretch.  Orange juice has a pH range of 3.3-4.19.  So as a reach, the most acidic greek yogurt whey it is as acidic as the least acidic orange juice.  The acidity of greek yogurt AW is much more in line with garden tomatoes and nectarines, and AW overall is much more in line with the acidity of pumpkins and bananas.  So while the acid is definitely a component of my AW, it is probably only an issue in a practical, functional sense if I have a sensitivity to acid in general.

But, what else is in my AW? Well, according to the below chart, it has protein, lactose, calcium and other assorted minerals. AW, in fact, has anywhere from .3% to .5% of protein in its makeup.  Far less than one percent! This, indeed, does not sound like a lot. But then you look at SW, and it only has .8% protein. Yet, SW is lauded for its protein.  There is not that much of it in there! It appears that the getting protein out of AW is not so much an issue of the amount of protein, but that the whey is not easy to extract from the AW.

Below is a chart to what is a practical break-down of using one cup of whey, since .05% protein did not translate easily to grams in my little brain.  As you can see, the one cup of AW give you an added 1.87 grams of protein.  In comparison, one cup of SW give you right around 2 grams.  (Ahem–not much of a difference, is there?!)

Also evident from the first chart, AW has less lactose than SW.  Is that good or bad, you ask if –like me– you have no idea what lactose is other than that some people are intolerant of it?  This is a good thing since lactose is essentially sugar. Lactose is what feeds the bacteria and that feeding produces lactic acid, which is what makes the AW acid.  As a commodity, lactose seems to be used as a filler and preservative, so there really does not seem to be any advantage to having more of it, though our food scientists are currently hard at work to attempt to extract lactose from AW to use as a food additive.  Shame on you, food system.  Here is probably the biggest draw back to using whey: lactose is sugar.  One cup of AW give you almost half of your 25 gram maximum for daily sugar intake– if you use World Health Organization guidelines (and you should!). (And, of course, if you are lactose intolerant, it is important to note that any type of whey will likely bother you.)

But it is not as easy as looking at something and isolating its sugar content. Whey has a lot going for it in terms of the added benefits it brings to the table.  For example, another by-product of the lactose feeding frenzy described above is calcium.  AW has 2-3 times more calcium than SW and one cup has about 25% of your daily requirements.  That’s pretty great for someone who does not like or drink milk. AW also has phosphorus, zinc, iron, potassium, magnesium, riboflavins, vitamin b-12, and a whole lot of other stuff.

So in summary, is whey a super food? This article seems to think so.  Though I have some reservations.  My original concerns after reading over and over again how little protein AW had was that I was adding nothing more than sugars and empty calories to everything.  But it is not at all empty.  There is a decent amount of protein (and it is particularly good protein) and a great amount of calcium, in addition to many other vitamins and minerals.  To something that already is low in sugar, such as my chicken noodle soup, I wouldn’t hesitate to add it.  It adds a nice amount of substance making a heartier more fortifying meal out of a bowl of soup.  But perhaps I may stop adding it to tomato sauce since that already has a high amount of natural and added sugars.  To a smoothie, I might add it to mine for some interesting tang and a tough of sweetness, but not to my husband’s if the acid content is already high.   And I think I am confident in pronouncing that AW is better for you than SW (less sugar, roughly the same amount of protein, less fat, more vitamins and minerals!). So if you are already a SW devotee, then AW is even better and you can feel confident that articles expressing how good for you SW apply equally (if not more so) to AW.

This article was a bit longer than I intended since every answer led to more questions.   But, more and more, I want to know exactly what I am eating and I hope you enjoyed the ride!

If you use whey, please share how you like to use it.



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