Just how nutritious are sustainable proteins?

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Eight food industry players have already signed up to the project. © iStock
Eight food industry players have already signed up to the project. © iStock

Related tags Amino acid Nutrition Protein

The need for sustainable proteins is on the rise, but are they as healthy and nutritious as their mainstream equivalents? A public-private partnership (PPP) coordinated by Wageningen University aims to determine just that, and is on the lookout for more industry partners.

With rising population rates, the global demand for protein is set to rise two-fold by 2050. “A demand nature simply cannot meet,”​ according to Wageningen University. “Whereas animal proteins are easier to digest in the human body than vegetable proteins, we have to look for an alternative that digests just as easily and creates a similar value for our bodies.

In order to do this the Dutch University is coordinating a consortium which, over the next four years, aims to estimate the nutritional and bio-functional activity potential of proteins from sustainable, resource-efficient sources.

Co-financed by the Dutch Topsector Agri & Food, the PPP will look at protein from peas, potatoes, animal plasma, edible fungi and insects, with the researchers studying how they compare to milk, soy and egg protein.

The project currently has eight industry partners on board – Danone Nutricia Research; potato starch manufacturer Avebe; US-headquartered Darling Ingredients; BASF;  French starch firm Roquette; mycoprotein firm Quorn; insect manufacturer Proti-Farm; and ‘organ-on-a-chip’ company Mimetas which will be providing animal-friendly in vitro models.

Utrecht University’s Institute for Pharmaceutical Sciences is also a partner.

However, it is still on the lookout for more partners who can offer insights into additional proteins. Participating in the programme could be beneficial for companies interested in developing novel products and creating standards for protein quality, according to Wageningen. It will also help firms generate information on the commercial potential of sustainably-produced proteins and how suitable they are in food formulations.

"The question is whether we can develop sustainable protein beside animal protein in foods without sacrificing nutritional value,” But we do not know to what degree these proteins are broken down into amino acids and how these components are absorbed by the body," ​said programme manager for Healthy and Tasty Food at Wageningen, Marloes Groenewegen, adding that current knowledge about sustainable proteins is limited to energy values and amino acid composition.

Animal-friendly toolbox

The research will focus on three elements of sustainable proteins; their digestibility, nutritional value and biological activity. The researchers first aim to develop the tools to determine whether plant proteins can be a substitute for animal proteins, or whether they should be combined with them.

Using advanced in-vitro digestion models and clinical studies using volunteers, the project will look at how the nutritional quality is affected by processing steps such as heating, and the effectiveness of protein mixes, amino acid mixes and supplements.

Professor of Immunomodulation at Wageningen University & Research and scientific coordinator of the project, Harry Wichers, said:  "Existing methods for the measurement of digestibility and biological activity are laborious and time-consuming, and often must use animal experiments. We will develop a user- and animal-friendly alternative.”

The nutritional quality will be determined in terms of the body’s amino acid requirements and the bio-functional activity potential of digestion-derived peptides, such as the effects on the gut-barrier function, intestinal immunity and a healthy gut microbiota.

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