The Azorean archipelago is considered the ideal region for dairy production. This small region in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is responsible for 30% of the total milk produced in Portugal and for 50% of its cheese production.
The Azores’ edaphoclimatic conditions are similar to a sub-tropical region with over 170 days of rain per year; It’s influenced by the Gulf Stream that intersects with the Polar Cold Streams. These conditions are ideal for the growth of a variety of plant life all year, including grass, which promotes a system that creates high-quality milk and guarantees a lower incidence of diseases that can affect the general health of the herds.
The vast majority of the farmers have consistently invested in Holstein-Frisian cows and have worked to create a high-value genetic profile cow throughout the years, with a minority of other bovine dairy breeds like Jersey or Brown Swiss.
The combination of the above conditions contributes to pasture-fed milk with proven high-quality and high percentages of hypercholesteraemic fatty acids like omega-3, omega-6, and linolenic acid.
The region has a long historical tradition of milk transformation mainly for cheese manufacture, which can be traced back to the colonial era with an important influence of Flemish people. Today, the main challenge faced by the dairy industry in the Azores Islands is the high cost of transportation. The main markets are located in the continental part of Portugal, and this geographical challenge along with the lack of marketing campaigns to promote local dairy products, allows the region's milk products to be overshadowed by those produced in other European countries.
A comprehensive SWOT analysis needs to be conducted to identify the potential solutions that could improve the value of the dairy sector in the Azorean archipelago. The most important factors to be considered are the establishment of more efficient milk production systems and cutting-edge technology tools that can create awareness around concepts like carbon footprint, social and environmentally conscious practices, and animal welfare.
The most pertinent option is to value dairy production and that might be best done by focusing on three key areas: greater organoleptic characteristics in milk; an exponential approach to product innovation; and exploration of the region's highest and strongest marketing statement – green pasture-feed dairy cows.
The manufacture of key dairy ingredients that can be applied to the production process of important food and beverages, chocolate and confectionary, infant nutrition and other food products from global food players, differentiated cheese and butter recipes that can apply for a protected denomination of origin (PDO), and organic or non-GMO milk products are just a few examples of an important step towards adding product value.
Many of the industries that are based in the islands are dedicated to the manufacture of different types of cheese. The key by-product of this mass production is whey.
Whey is considered dairy waste and represents a problem for the dairy industry once this residue exhibits very high levels of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and chemical oxygen demand (COD). These parameters are an indicative measure of the amount of oxygen consumed by microorganisms in the process of decomposition of the organic matter, monitoring potential environmental polluters. The high levels associated with whey exceed the limits established by national and international standards and therefore it is prohibited direct disposal of whey in the environment in most regions of the world.
The high pollutant load of whey means that is extremely necessary to find effective and permanent sustainable ways of using whey. Many efforts have been made by the industry and by researchers around the world in order to add value to whey.
In the Azores, Whey is mainly sold as a commodity in the dry form, or its use is leveraged by Prolacto by producing whey-mix formulas with a great application for the beverage (vending) businesses.
Nonetheless, it is necessary to find other applications to use whey in the Azores islands, with a focus on increasing the commercial value of whey derivate products. As whey is a good source of nutrients (lactose, minerals, and bioactive peptides), is necessary to extract specific whey components that could be functional for other industries and therefore create other products that make it possible to increase profit margins.
Innovative techniques such as membrane filtration, and chromatography (affinity and ion exchange) make it possible to separate the components of whey. Using this technology allows the concentration of the protein fraction of whey to originate whey protein concentrates, whey protein isolates, and whey protein hydrolysates. These products are very appreciated as supplements in sports nutrition due to their nutritional and biological value, as they are a source of essential amino acids and have a high capacity for absorption and digestion by the body, ensuring a positive protein balance that promotes muscle hypertrophy. Besides, their nutritional value, whey proteins also have functional properties, such as high solubility, gelatinating, emulsifying, and foaming properties that could be beneficial for their use as an ingredient in the food industry.
Isolation of specific proteins from the whey protein fraction can also be a challenge and a trend to be followed. There is considerable interest in isolating individual alfa-lactalbumin, beta-lactoglobulin, lactoferrin, and immunoglobulin fractions. Alfa-lactalbumin and lactoferrin could be used as ingredients for infant nutritional formula because alfa-lactalbumin is the main protein in human milk and lactoferrin ensures antimicrobial, antibacterial, anti-tumor, and anti-inflammatory properties. In its turn, beta-lactoglobulin could be applied in the food industry due to gelling, emulsifying, and foaming properties while immunoglobulins improve the immune system by preventing the adhesion of microbes, inhibiting bacterial metabolism, and neutralizing toxins and viruses. To obtain isolate protein fractions, is necessary to apply combined methods such as chromatography techniques, membrane techniques, and other approaches such as electro-separation, magnetic fishing, and aqueous two-phase separation.
During recovering of whey proteins, it is also obtained a fraction called whey permeate. Lactose is the main component of whey permeate and there are also significant opportunities to convert this component into several added-value products mostly through bioprocesses involving enzymatic biotransformation and microbial selective fermentation.
Lactose in its refined state is significantly used as a pharmaceutical ingredient to produce medicines in the form of tablets, capsules, and inhalers and is also used as an inert carrier of drugs due to its stability (physical and chemical) and purity. In addition to this application, through enzymatic processes and chemical modifications, it is possible to transform lactose into several lactose-derived compounds that are considered health-promoting agents, such as galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), lactulose, epilactose, lactosucrose, lactitol, lactobionic acid, tagatose, and fructosyl-galacto-oligosaccharides (fGOS).
On the other hand, whey permeate (lactose) could be used as a substrate for fermentation processes that allow for obtaining a wide range of valuable products. Among these products can be noteworthy, biogas (methane), organic acids (lactic acid, citric acid, acetic acid, and itaconic acid), polysaccharides (xanthan, pullulan, dextran, gellan), solvents (ethanol and buthanol), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), yeast biomass (single cell protein) and other biochemicals, such as vitamin B12, 2-3 butandiol, and oils.
Thus, with so many possibilities to develop whey-derived products, it is crucial for the Azorean dairy industry to store whey as a valuable resource instead of being considered as waste. Therefore, it is necessary to invest time to make studies and assays to develop products that can be profitable and that can respond to the current needs of consumers. The use of whey to develop food products meets the requirements for health-promoting dairy products that are a trend nowadays. Whey proteins and biopeptides derived from whey are components that demonstrate a range of immune-enhancing and antioxidant properties that result in effects on hypertension, cancer, hyperlipidaemia, and virus infections.
Additionally, other products could be valuable to other industries besides the food industry, so there are opportunities to try to value Azorean whey with other different strategies from those currently used.