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Moo-ve over, conventional thinking: There's a new 'whey' to cut waste - and make booze

Cows walk through a field at the Double J Jerseys organic dairy farm near Monmouth. Sales of Oregon dairy products gained 17.1 percent from 2009 to 2010 to total $473 million, according to estimates in an Oregon State University report. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University tout a "whey" cheesemakers could reduce waste - while creating a new product: Vodka.

The issue:

As much as 90 percent of the milk that goes into a cheese-making facility comes out as whey, which can be expensive to dispose of in landfills and potentially harmful to the environment.
Large companies can turn a nice profit by turning some of that whey into protein powders and other nutrition-enhancing products – but the equipment is too expensive for most artisanal creameries, researchers say.

But some smaller companies have found a way to transform the whey into vodka.

“Even though some energy is required to transform whey into vodka, there is still a huge environmental gain by not disposing of it through waste streams,” said Lisbeth Goddik, a professor of food science and technology at OSU who holds two endowed professorships. “There is a significant reduction of greenhouse gases, and the creameries have the potential to also boost their revenue.”

Goddik and Paul Hughes from OSU’s fermentation science program are now researching "the flavor characteristics of different wheys and the spirits they produce," OSU said this week.

There are two kinds of whey:

  • "Sweet whey," a byproduct of cheddar, mozzarella and Swiss cheeses
  • "Acid whey," a byproduct of cottage cheese and Greek yogurt

“Both types of whey ferment and distill beautifully,” said Hughes, who leads the distilling program at OSU. “Our chemical flavor analysis suggests some differences between the two wheys and eventually we hope to isolate more of the chemical compounds and match them with flavor characteristics.”

The impact on waste reduction alone could be dramatic, the researchers say:

Oregon is home to 22 artisan cheesemakers; Washington has about 70. Nationwide, there are 1,700 small cheesemakers.

“Cheese companies used to spread whey on fields, feed it to animals, and dispose of it in landfills,” Goddik said. “Neither is a great solution. Even if you decide to ferment the whey and then dump it down the drain, there is less damage to the environment. But why do that if you can create a value-added product?”

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