The Coca-Cola Company is an unlikely candidate for kickstarting New Zealand's billion dollar whey protein industry.
Up until now the story of the relationship between the dairy industry and Coca-Cola has remained secret. But a recently released book Whey to Go lifts the lid on what prompted the dairy industry to develop the lucrative milk by-product.
At the end of the 1960s the dairy industry was facing a crisis over what to do with some of its waste. While it had found a market for casein, which was then used mainly for industrial uses such as buttons, plastics and paper coating, it had a major problem with what to do with leftover whey.
Kevin Marshall, former head of the New Zealand Dairy Research Institute, puts it into historical context. As soon as the industry started using milk tankers, large factories replaced the multiplicity of factories that existed before.
"We had to find a use for the whey in order to keep casein going, that was the imperative. Beforehand, farmers used to feed it to their pigs, spread it on pasture as a fertiliser, or dump it into the local stream," he says.
But with the huge quantities of milk flooding into the large factories, dumping was not an acceptable option.
At this point enter Coca-Cola. The drinks giant was researching the creation of nutrition-enriched beverages, and approached the New Zealand Dairy Board about the possibilities of sourcing protein from whey - 10,000 tonnes a year of it.
"We would probably not have got started had Coca-Cola not said to the Dairy Board's marketing director Neville Jones 'we think we want 10,000 tonnes of whey protein concentrate'. That was a marketer's dream.
"It would have been a long time later that we would have got involved in whey protein concentrate and we would have been followers, not leaders. With the carrot of 10,000 tonnes of product we put a lot of effort into it and the Dairy Board was prepared to invest quite heavily," Marshall says.
The problem was no-one had developed a way of extracting the whey protein in soluble form. Over the next few years the dairy industry team set to work experimenting with ultrafiltration, finally starting commercial production in 1971.
Trial and error marked the work. At one stage the experimenters were casting around for a means to clean the complex ultrafiltration equipment. The wife of the Dairy Research Institute's director suggested the home laundry product Bio Luvil.
"We cleaned the supermarket out and it worked. But everything stunk of it because it was scented, so we had to look for some industrial grade, unscented stuff," Marshall recalls.
But by 1973 Coca-Cola had decided not to proceed with its beverage programme. It had intended Brazil to be the first market for the protein-added drinks, but the government there slapped a tariff on imported protein.
Brazil itself did not have enough supply of whey protein itself, so the shortfall would have had to be imported. Because of the cost, it was not logical to proceed.
It was not until 2012 that Coca-Cola finally manufactured a high protein milkshake called Core Power, using a US dairy company's whey protein.
Although Coca-Cola withdrew from its project with the Dairy Board, its involvement was to prove the catalyst for development of the valuable whey protein concentrate industry.
"We had a unique technology, a unique product but no market so we spent two years looking for that market. Eventually we found a customer in Japan who wanted a product that would gel on heating, to add to ham," Marshall says.
When a ham is cooked it loses a lot of water. Heated whey protein concentrate, which gels like egg white, is added to the ham to retain moisture.
Other applications were discovered, including using whey protein as an ingredient in beverages, processed meats, infant formula, salad dressings, and cakes.
Whey protein proved to be a key in making infant formula closer to human milk. Cow's milk is high in casein relative to human milk, but low in whey protein.
Whey protein is added to infant formula to make it more like human milk.
The whey protein story does not end there. After the protein is removed from whey, 90 per cent of the product remains as a fluid and if dumped into rivers as it often was, it caused major pollution problems.
Once more the scientists got to work to create products out of this waste such as lactose, or by fermentation to produce ethanol. Today most gin and vodka made in New Zealand is based on lactose- derived ethanol.
Whey mineral concentrate was also the key ingredient of high calcium milk powder. All told, the value of products manufactured from ultrafiltration today is worth about $1.5 billion a year to the New Zealand dairy industry.
Marshall says there are important lessons that New Zealand can learn from its development of whey protein concentrate.
"You can make valuable products from waste but it takes a long time, persistence, investment, leadership and vision. We were successful also because the Dairy Board was in the marketplace and understood customers.
"The meat and fish industries have got lots of waste. You don't make a hell of a lot of money out of blood and bone, 70 per cent of fish is turned into fish meal which is pretty low value - could we do better than that?" he asks.
Marshall differs from those who contend dried milk is not an added- value product.
"Milk on the farm doesn't have a lot of value because it's not stable. So turning it into milk powder is adding value to the milk on the farm. It's classified as a commodity for export purposes but the reality is New Zealand milk powder is sold at a premium price because it's high quality, consistent in composition, and comes with a package of technical support for users," he says.
New Zealand researchers are always looking for ways of adding value. During the 1970s technologists developed methods of instantising wholemilk powder so it could be stirred into water, adding significant value. Then the dairy boffins learned how to store wholemilk powder without it oxidising, further adding value.
Marshall, now semi-retired and living in Seatoun, but still active on various primary sector bodies, says Fonterra and other dairy companies are not in the privileged situation of large overseas companies like Nestle, which are surrounded by a market of millions of people to whom fresh products can be delivered directly.
"We have a market for fresh products of only 4.5 million in New Zealand and 21 million in Australia. We decided in the Dairy Board we would develop high value ingredients, and other people would add further value."
Whey to Go, edited by John MacGibbon (Ngaio Press, 2014)
- The Dominion Post