Scottish researchers pioneer protein pill to fight obesity

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nutrition, Obesity

A potentially radical protein supplement to help combat the obesity crisis could in the pipeline, as scientists at Scotland’s Rowett Institute have been awarded a multi-million euro EU research grant to study the possibility.

The Aberdeen University-based team aims to develop a protein supplement that makes users feel fuller for longer, upon the basis that high protein foods such as meat, fish and cheese have this beneficial physiological effect.

Full details of the grant are not yet available, but the research is spurred by worrying obesity statistics in Scotland, with 65 per cent of adults classified as overweight. The team hopes that eating a protein capsule prior to eating, or consuming a specially formulated high-protein food, will trigger satiety effects that lead to people having smaller portions at mealtimes.

Protein satiety effects

A key aspect of the research is discovering why such an approach might work, and the particular forms of protein that work best as an ingredient in a pill or functional food.

Head of obesity research at the Rowett Institute, Professor Julian Mercer, who is leading the study, told Herald Scotland​: “We are looking to find out what signals are triggered by protein, which are then read by the brain saying it is time to stop eating.

According to Mercer, as food digests, hormones and amino acid compounds called peptides are released into the gut: the hormone ghrelin rises before meals signalling hunger to the brain and drops thereafter. Meanwhile, higher amounts of the peptide YY (PYY) seem to correlate with feelings of fullness.

Foods not pills

Nonetheless, with fears rife that satiety supplements in pill form encourage irresponsible food consumption and a ‘magic bullet’ approach to tackling obesity, Mercer was keen to stress the potential for such proteins to be formulated within foods.

He said: “We are looking at the obesity problem and really trying to assess whether we could come up with a food solution to it rather than a drug solution.”

Speaking to NutraIngredients.com, National Obesity Forum spokesman Tam Fry welcomed the new research programme as a long overdue government-backed scheme:

“There’s a huge rush of people looking at hormones, peptides in the hope of producing some sort of ‘magic pill’, which is why the Rowett Institute carries real clout – this research will not be cheap and cheerful.

“It has the added benefit of EU funding, where the union has responsibility for funding such projects in relation to the 26 coutries as a whole, not just for Scotland.”

Fry also welcomed recent research that he thought showed promise in terms of formulating ingredients to tackle obesity, but said patience was key: “The hormones ghrelin and leptin, the peptide PYY are all promising – growing research around proteins provides hope for the future.

“The problem is that at the moment we’re only talking about possibilities, since it will be 10 to 12 years before products such as yoghurt shots reach the marketplace. Aside from the research complications, developers need to negotiate the regulatory landscapes.”

Satiety-promoting alternatives

Proteins aside, resistant starch also promises satiety benefits, where researchers from the University of Toronto claimed to show for the first time, in a June 2010 study, that resistant starch alone increased satiety and reduced food intake after two hours.

Links between fibre consumption and satiety are especially well-grounded, where a 2001 study by Howarth et al. in Nutrition Reviews​ examined reviewed studies and concluded that those where participants had consumed food according to normal preference showed that an additional 14g of fibre daily resulted in 10 per cent less energy intake.

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