A New Zealand-based company researching alternative uses for a byproduct from cheesemaking has its sights on developing it into a remedy for people with type 2 diabetes.
The killer disease is New Zealand's biggest and fastest-growing health condition. Pasifika and Māori communities, particularly in South Auckland, are the hardest hit and Ministry of Health figures show more than 277,000 people had diabetes in 2020, with nearly 50,000 in the Counties-Manukau region alone.
But, hopefully, there might soon be a breakthrough.
WheyTech Bionics NZ is partnering with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) on a two-year project that aims to develop technology to process whey permeate, as a sweetener product with anti-diabetic properties.
"An existing patent from Germany shows the high levels of glucose in whey can create a sugar with properties that are anti-diabetic," MPI investment programmes director Steve Penno says.
"Part of the project's research and development process will involve exploring the manufacturing and efficacy of an equivalent product made from New Zealand whey."
Through the Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund MPI is committing more than $111,000 to the $277,903 project.
Over $2.1 billion is spent each year in Aotearoa treating type-2 diabetes, and that is predicted to rise to more than $3.1 billion in the next 20 years.
WheyTech Bionics NZ's chief executive officer Ben Van Rooy is excited about the potential of whey. "We need to stop overlooking whey, as it's a marvellous product.
"We already have significant support from many quarters, in particular beverages companies keen to try alternative sugars. Also, the chocolate and bakery sectors are interested in replacing what we know as normal sugars with whey-derived products.
"Currently there are no New Zealand-made sweeteners on retail shelves. The imported sweeteners often have artificial ingredients added that don't have any health benefits. This gap in the market presents a real opportunity."
Milk producers from Canterbury, Hamilton, and Tauranga are providing raw product for the trials, which are being conducted by Plant & Food Research in Palmerston North and FoodSouth at the University of Canterbury.
"We've already managed to make a liquid syrup but we're still working on the flavour profile," Van Rooy says. "We're also conducting research to ensure our product is stable and consistent.
"Our next challenge will be to turn the product into a stable powder format that can be used in nutraceuticals. This will be technically tricky due to its stickiness but, if we manage to achieve this, it will be a world first."
Van Rooy says the most valuable part of the project lies in the nutraceuticals component of the product.
"We're hoping to eventually create a pharmaceutical product that doctors will prescribe for type 2 diabetes. Of course, this will require extensive testing and clinical trials so will be a few years away – but this is my ultimate dream."
Penno says the opportunity to make good use of a common waste product is also a compelling reason to support this project.
"One of the strategic objectives of the Fit for a Better World government and sector road map is the sustainable and profitable growth of value-added products from existing raw material.
"If this project is successful it will make a positive difference to our dairy industry, our environment, and potentially people with type 2 diabetes."