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Nutrition

The history of whey

Little Miss Muffet, stone age farmers and Italian cheesemakers all knew the world of whey

Most children in the English-speaking world grow up with the traditional nursery rhyme about Little Miss Muffet getting scared by a spider as she eats her curds and whey. Yet even though children know the rhyme, they probably don’t know exactly what whey is. Today whey is generally mainly appreciated by fitness and health enthusiasts. So what is the history of this unique and highly nutritional dairy protein? 

Ever since the first farmers began ploughing the earth and creating the first village settlements, whey has been an important part of our diets. We know this because archeologists are able to use modern technology to analyse artefacts and dental remains to find out how our ancient ancestors lived, where they lived and also what they ate. Their findings give us valuable insights into the food preferences of ancient communities.

When they ran further tests on one jar, they found that the jar was used to handle pure whey

For example, archeologists found ancient proteins in ceramic vessels in Catalhoyuk West in Anatolia in modern-day Turkey. When they ran further tests on one jar, they found that the jar was used to handle pure whey – proving that they valued this highly nutritional ingredient in ancient times. In fact, archeological samples have shown that whey protein has been consistently present in people’s diets throughout time.

Part of traditional dairy

We also know that whey has been an important part of our diet over the centuries by looking at traditional cheeses. Mozzarella and Ricotta are two Italian famous cheeses that use whey in the cheese making process. The name Ricotta means “recooked” and comes from the fact that the whey is reheated in the cheesemaking process. Once the whey has fermented, it is heated until it is close to boiling. This turns the proteins into the solid mass, which are strained to form the well-known Ricotta cheese. 

And it’s not just in Italy where whey has been an important part of the national cuisine. Whey can also be found in a number of other cheeses throughout Europe – ranging from the Norwegian Brunost, Mysost or Gjetost cheeses to the Greek Monouri, Mizithra and Anthotyros cheeses. This shows just how widespread whey has been in the kitchens of Europe.

Other historical sources also show that whey was enjoyed as a drink. For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a fashion in Europe for whey houses. These establishments were like today’s coffee shops where customers could enjoy whey drinks and conversation with the other patrons. This fashion developed into whey health spas in the 19th century. These wellness centres promoted the medicinal value of whey and guests would use whey to treat skin ailments by applying the whey to the affected areas. Today it might seem like a strange idea but the topical application of whey was far from a new idea at this time. Back in 460 BC Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine had been prescribing whey as a treatment for gastrointestinal ailments and skin conditions.

In spite of the popularity of whey as a foodstuff, drink – and even health treatment – in the 20th century whey fell out of fashion and its nutritional value started to be forgotten. This was mainly due to the growth of the dairy industry and growing industrialisation of cheese and yoghurt making. In these processes, whey was treated as a waste product only fit for disposal.

The rediscovery of whey

Happily with the increased interest in nutrition and health, whey is once again being recognized for its many benefits. Modern science has proven that whey is naturally high in all of the essential amino acids – in particular leucine – that is a key component in building and maintaining muscles. This discovery has made whey protein a well-known ingredient among fitness enthusiasts and it is gradually becoming more widely known among other groups, such as families looking to boost the nutritional value of meals and older people wanting to look after themselves.

It’s doubtful that Miss Muffet was going to enjoy her curds and whey as part of a health initiative, but throughout history people have intrinsically known that whey was worth enjoying. They knew that this natural and nutritional foodstuff is definitely too good to go to waste.

Sources:

Hendy J et al. 2018 – Proteomic evidence of dietary sources in ancient dental calculus.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2018.0977

Smithers G 2015 – Whey-ing up the options – Yesterday, today and tomorrow International Dairy Journal 48 (2015) http://www.euromilk.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Public_Documents/Wheyforliving/The_history_of_whey/Whey-ing_up_the_options.pdf