The annual whey conference will this year be held from 11-14 September in Chicago, Illinois and be hosted by the American Dairy Products Institute (ADPI), in conjunction with the European Whey Products Association (EWPA) and US companies such as NEXT Proteins and Kraft Foods.
The primary objective of this year's conference "is to showcase whey protein as a value added ingredient with tremendous consumer health and nutrition benefits," according to James Page, the CEO of ADPI.
One of the keynote speakers will be Dr. Michael Zemel, professor of nutrition and medicine at the University of Tennessee, and a leading researcher on the effects of dairy products on health. He told FoodNavigatorUSA.com that he will be focusing attention on the role of whey protein for weight management.
"We know the link between weight management and dairy is largely due to whey fraction. Most importantly, whey can augment weight loss, while protecting muscle, meaning you lose more fat and less lean," said Zemel.
However, he also wants to use the conference to draw attention to the importance of whey for healthy people, highlighting how it can help the body recover rapidly from the metabolic stress of exercise and stop slim-line Americans from gaining extra pounds.
"The average American gains 1-3 pounds of weight a year; the use of traditional dairy foods and whey ingredients is one effective strategy to help keep them lean".
One of the first companies to decide to turn science into food was NEXT Proteins led by CEO David Jenkins, who told FoodNavigatorUSA.com that he has seen the market for whey products explode in the last couple of years. Moreover, he can only see growth ahead as the benefits of whey become more familiar to the consumer and the mainstream food companies come on board.
"We were the first company in the US to introduce a whey protein to the market and since then the market has exploded in the sports and functional foods sector with products ranging from yogurts to ice-cream, cookies to egg-white replacement," he said.
His company is focusing on making headway into healthy, convenience foods.
"We are concentrating on bars, snacks and drinks, in other words purse-friendly foods that have real functional benefits, even life-changing promise," he said, citing a study carried out with dialysis patients as proof of the wonders of whey.
"We want to provide snacks that people can eat whenever and wherever they like, to encourage grazing not gorging. These bars are healthy and functional, but are being stocked by mainstream stores, such as Wal Mart, who are embracing health and diet ranges," he explained.
He believes that consumers will buy such products as long as they do not have to compromise on taste, "such as happened with some of the low-carb products".
The market for NEXT, according to Jenkins, really started to take off two years ago when they launched the Detour bar.
"We realized we needed to make a whey protein bar that looked and tasted like a candy bar." Hence, the launch of the Detour bar, a protein bar with peanuts, caramel and low-sugar chocolate.
After five years of stable 10 percent growth, the launch of the bar rocketed sales up by 110 percent.
"We saw some shrinkage last year because of changes in the market with the onset of diets such as Atkins, but now our products are really finding their legs again with the major retailers and I expect there to be tremendous opportunity going forward," he said.
Despite this, whey still has a very low profile with the consumer.
"Most people can't even spell the word,"said Jenkins. But the food industry is well aware of it and the big food companies are looking closely at the ingredient.
Jenkins estimated that overall the whey commodity market - including 34 percent and 90 percent whey - is currently worth over $1 billion, with finished products worth a similar amount.
"Last week, for example, 12 million tons of 34 percent was shipped," he said, adding that NEXT sources all its whey from US suppliers, which offer ingredients of "tremendous quality".
Moreover, in his opinion, the price of whey is pretty stable, "though it is ticking upwards".
"It has been as low as $1 a pound, high grade whey is now double that and whey isolate can be as much as $3 dollars a pound," he added.
NEXT still has a low share of the market - competitors include EAS and NBTY with its Nature's Bounty range - but Jenkins believes we will see significant changes going forward.
"We probably have about a 30 percent share of the bars' markets, 20 percent of the powders' market and barely any share of the drinks' market, but this will change," he said.
He believes that when big players like Nestle enter the market, NEXT will be able to differentiate itself from the competition to gain market share.
"We are focusing on innovation and have a big product pipeline. In 90 days we will be launching a product that will introduce a whole new category and we have more launches lined up."
Zemel believes that getting whey into foods is important because people are not getting enough whey from original sources.
"We recommend three servings of whey in the diet everyday, but because people are not doing that, we need to look at putting it into processed foods".
Moreover, there is plenty of scope for producers as emerging research suggests that as well as weight management, whey may help optimize the immune system and improve gastro-intestinal health.