Protein developments pave way for smarter, sustainable nutrition

Experts in a number of fields are now accepting that more protein is helpful for many people. So, what new ways of providing and refining it can we expect to see in coming years?

Robert Wildman
Robert Wildman Ph.D., Founder of

When the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein was established nearly a century ago in the United States, it was set at a level to help prevent general deficiency. Similar standards have been set around the world, but again and again we’re seeing research evidence that these standards are insufficient for optimal health and wellbeing, and for specific applications.

There is, therefore, an emerging demand for more dietary protein and it’s launching a veritable explosion of research and development into new products and processing methods. There are tremendous possibilities on many fronts. Here I’ll discuss some of the avenues that look most promising for future applications.

Efficiency for the planet
Today, in light of increasing awareness around climate change and the Earth’s limited resources, we need to think seriously about how to meet human health needs more efficiently. While it’s fair to be concerned about the methane output from more cows making more milk protein, please consider this: increasing the efficiency of protein products is powerfully beneficial from an environmental point of view. If we can make something more effective, we can produce and consume less of it.

A matter of digestion
It’s important to ask whether we can do a better job with the protein we are already consuming. Can we make it work better? When it comes to potency, milk proteins and whey in particular, are more potent than plant proteins in general. This is largely because milk proteins and whey are more efficiently digested and nutritionally complete, with a higher concentration of branched-chain amino acids (BCAA). This efficiency is particularly helpful when protein intake is limited and/or during weight management where every calorie counts.

Meanwhile, plant-derived protein is harder to digest, and most plant protein sources are not nutritionally complete. This means that it takes more protein from plant-based sources than animal protein to derive the same nutritional potency. Knowing this, it makes sense to better understand how digestibility of plant proteins can be improved through hydrolysis as well as food fortification strategies.

Hydrolysis is a process that happens naturally during digestion when the constituent proteins are broken down into smaller peptides and amino acids. Furthermore, the practice of hydrolysing proteins has been used in the food industry for decades to create ingredients with specific functional properties for recipe foods. And let’s not forget that certain paediatric nutrition products are formulated with hydrolysed proteins to address key nutritional issues in infancy.

Without question, one consideration as we progress into the future is to ensure we are getting the most out of our dietary protein that is possible.

Protein gets functional
This deeper dive that we’re now making into protein echoes one that’s already been made into understanding fat. Decades ago, blanket recommendations were made about fat, but then we started to investigate fatty acids and learnt that different types of fats have different applications. We now know that the omega-3 fats found in fish are very different to the saturated fat laden in butter – both have the same number of calories, but one is almost purely fuel, whereas the other is more of a regulatory functional fat.

Similarly, we’re starting to realise that protein-derived amino acids are different, with some having a more significant impact on body function. Here, protein differs from starch, as the latter is comprised of only glucose, while proteins are constructed from twenty different amino acids. 

Leucine takes the stage
One incredibly important amino acid is leucine. Leucine is one of the three BCAAs, which in turn are the core of the dietary essential amino acids (EAAs). We are reliant on the diet to provide the EAAs, whereas the other amino acids (called non-essential amino acids) can be made in our body.

Leucine has the job of turning up protein synthesis throughout the body. Because protein is the structural and functional basis of the body, leucine takes on somewhat of a superhero role and is often used for fortification of products.

The EAAs are critical for efficient protein manufacturing in the body, making them the ideal candidate for fortification to potentially elevate the protein potency.

Harnessing friendly bacteria
Some researchers are examining how even the most traditional of techniques might be used to open up new possibilities for the future. Fermentation is a food-processing method used for millennia to produce yoghurt and other fermented foods. Now the protein industry is looking at further possibilities for fermentation. For instance, what happens if we take a milk protein concentrate or isolate and pre-ferment it? One advantage is that it reduces lactose content even further. There’s also interest in beneficial by-products that are produced during the fermentation of milk proteins.

A new look at old proteins
Speaking of traditional foods, the collagen found in animal parts such as skin, tendons, bone, eggshell and cartilage is also a protein that’s sparking renewed interest. Collagen has been long positioned as a general protein, but without the nutritional potency based on digestibility and amino acid composition.

Today, collagen, hydrolysed collagen and peptides appear to have found stronger footing, being identified as beneficial for skin and joints, which opens up a potential realm of protein-based products with applications beyond nutrition. Other protein-derived hydrolysates and specific peptides, such as lactotripeptides, for example, are targeting blood pressure.

The body’s mysterious ways
Finally, there’s still much to be discovered about how our bodies manage the protein they receive – and the answers will be highly relevant for the products that’ll appear in the coming years. One mystery to be solved is why only a small percentage of the protein we eat is converted into muscle. What are the body’s priorities for how it doles out its protein intake to its various tissues? How is this controlled? This opens up a Pandora’s Box of questions!

One thing’s for sure: there’s a surge of interest in new and better ways to use protein to enhance human health, and I feel that we’re only just beginning to get a feeling for what will be possible.

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