Wheytech Bionics

May 2023

Wheytech Bionics develop a new sweetener from a by-product of cheese-making.

WheyTech Bionics is developing a food grade sweetener from whey permeate, a by-product of cheese-making often treated as a waste product, fed to stock or used to irrigate land. 


Currently no sweeteners are produced in New Zealand and many imported products are made from artificial ingredients. The whey-based sweetener would offer a New Zealand produced, natural option. As well, and perhaps even more significantly, early research suggests the sweetener has anti-diabetic properties (against Type 2 diabetes) which would be a game changer for this ‘value-add’ proposition. 


Whey is a by-product of cheese manufacturing. Some of the bigger milk producers in New Zealand use ultra-filtration to remove proteins from the whey for use in nutritional supplements, and whey permeate is the liquid that remains after the proteins are extracted. Whey and whey permeate are often treated as waste products, especially in small and medium sized cheese companies. It is traditionally disposed of by spraying on pasture or feeding to pigs.


New Zealand produces about 370,000 tonnes of cheese per annum, resulting in about 3 million tonnes of whey. WheyTech Bionics aims to turn this into a value-added nutraceutical. Sweetener syrups made from whey have been produced offshore but manufacture has ceased due to non-availability of feedstocks, and processing capacity.


Using an existing patent (developed in Europe) WheyTech Bionics, led by CEO Ben Van Rooy, is exploring the manufacture and efficacy of an equivalent product made in New Zealand from New Zealand milk, produced by grass fed, seasonally calved cows. The research is being led by consultant agrifood scientist and biochemist, Dr Michael Boland.


The exciting aspect of the intellectual property the company has bought into, is the anti-diabetic properties that were identified. In a German trial involving an animal model, a syrup produced from whey permeates delayed the onset of type 2 diabetes. Its effect is understood to be due to certain milk-derived peptides present in the whey. There is significant scientific literature and a number of patents offshore, covering a wide range of peptides present in milk and whey that have been confirmed as having bioactive properties. 


WheyTech, with support from Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) through the Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures Fund (SFFFF), is developing a nutraceutical prototype powder, utilizing the facilities and expertise of the team at Food South, the South Island hub of the Food Innovation Network. It is housed on the Lincoln University campus and operates food and beverage production trial facilities, enabling businesses to develop, scale up and commercialise new products. 


The sweetener syrup prototype is being developed at the Food Pilot (at Massey University), with funding from Callaghan Innovation. Milk producers from Canterbury, Hamilton, and Tauranga are providing the raw material for the suite of trials.


Research around the original patent had not previously resulted in a powder. And, as Michael Boland and Ben Van Rooy explain, producing a stable powder is key to unlocking the nutraceutical market. WheyTech have now succeeded in producing a number of prototypes and are currently refining the end product. The next step with the powder prototype will be trials, via animal models, to see if they can reproduce the anti-diabetic effects seen in the European trials. Human clinical trials would then follow.


If WheyTech succeed in their work to produce a second value-added product from whey permeate, there will be a big shift in capability. Processing of whey could be amalgamated across several companies. Furthermore, a natural sweetener with additional anti-diabetic health benefits, would be a game changer for many.


Cheese maker Paul Fitzsimons has a history in dairy research and cheese making. He began the Talbot Forest Cheese company, and now owns and runs the Geraldine Cheese company. He says, “Helping a business like this get up and running is something I've always enjoyed doing and it's good to bring out the research and science and technology. My main job is to deliver the whey for this project. Knowing the type of product that they're trying to manufacture, we've been able to identify some good quality milk from a farm that has good quality practices, and we know what the animals are being fed, and we are making a lot of cheese from it, so we know how it's going to behave. We can make the specific cheese so the whey requirements, that suit this product, and we can deliver in small volumes as well, which is great.”


See also: