Group plans to involve consumers in improving transparency on amino acid sourcing

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

 ©Getty Images - Bartek Szewczyk
©Getty Images - Bartek Szewczyk

Related tags Amino acids Protein Transparency Sourcing

A new group has formed whose stated mission is to bring clarity and transparency to the sourcing of amino acids. Called Aminofacts, the group is querying manufacturers to get a picture of how these ingredients are made and where they come from.

Aminofacts bills itself as a “an independent, non-profit organization that brings transparency to sourcing and production processes around food grade amino acids.” ​ During a conversation with some of the leading lights of the effort, the group did disclose to NutraIngredients-USA​ that seed funding for the project has been provided by South Korean amino acid manufacturer CJ Bio.

Amino acids, which are organic compounds of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen with variable side chains, are the building blocks of proteins.  Twenty amino acids are found in the body.  Of these, nine are classified as ‘essential’ in that they cannot be synthesized by the body and must be obtained from the diet. They are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. 

 Leucine, isoleucine and valine are further differentiated by their side chains and are characterized as branched chain amino acids (BCAAs).  These are popular ingredients in sports nutrition products.  Leucine in particular is closely linked to muscle protein synthesis which accounts for its ubiquity in this product category, whether as a standalone ingredient or in proteins that feature high amounts of leucine.

Ingredients are common; sourcing info is not

But while these amino acids are commonplace, the organizers of the group claim that it’s almost unheard of to have information on the label about where they come from.  And that answer can be surprisingly complex. 

Amino acids are obtained by deconstructing proteins by a variety of chemical processes, and those proteins can come from a wide range of sources. Much of the material left over from animal processing still contains proteins, for example, that could be broken down into their constituent elements.  The same is true of much ‘waste’ plant material left over from food ingredient processing.

Among the individuals involved in the new group is Mitch Kanter, former director of health and nutrition at Cargill and a former director of nutrition research at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute.  Kanter said he agreed to come on as an adviser to the project because he believed it was time that consumers had this information.

“This is a group that wants to bring transparency to the sources and production processes around food grade amino acids, particularly for people who are vegan or want to practice a vegetarian diet.  These days everybody claims they’ve got a plant-based product.  A lot of people aren’t sure what those terms really mean, and it’s hard to know where these amino acids are sourced from.  This effort is meant to bring a little bit of transparency and education for people in that camp,”​ Kanter said.

Sourcing amino acids can be opportunistic decision

Laurie Cairns, a communications professional based in Chicago, has been involved in the organization and branding of the effort, which could be said to be nearing the end of its beta testing phase.  The work up to now has been partly to evaluate how difficult it will be to assemble a full database of all of the amino acids-containing products on the market.

Cairns said up to now staff members have been gleaning sourcing information from manufacturers’ websites where possible.  If more information is needed, as it usually is, that is obtained from calling the company’s contact line and talking to people in call centers.  In addition to the amino acid sourcing information the project has been inquiring about certifications that might be important for vegan consumers.

Cairns said this pilot phase has given the project’s organizers a feel for how long getting the information for each entry would take.

“At the moment there are about 150 products in the queue to validate.  We have started out primarily focusing on supplements and we are going to be expanding more broadly into sports nutrition. I do believe the total  number of products we’ll be interested in will be in the tens of thousands,”​ she said.

“What we’ve found so far is that these amino acids are coming from plant and animal sources both.  Sometimes it appears to be an opportunistic choice for manufacturers based on supply and price,”​ she said.

Cairns said that while the amino acids themselves would be identical regardless of whether they were isolated from a protein that was originally part of a plant or an animal, that sourcing info will matter for vegan consumers. That’s especially true when considering some of the what might be seen as distasteful sources of amino acids, such as hair, feathers, or what Cairns termed as ‘fish silage.’

Ross Craig,  manager of marketing and business development for CJ America BIo, the North American brand of the South Korean parent company, is helping to head the effort from the CJ Bio side. He said the ultimate goal is to bring consumers into the project in something of a crowd sourcing model.

“We invited consumers who were reading the site to provide us with the brands they use that they would like to know more about the site to provide us with brands that they use that they would like to now more about ,” ​Craig said.

Trimming info goals down so consumers can participate

Craig said the project is nearing the end of its pilot phase when it plans to publish its first round of results.  Sometime thereafter the consumer-driven crowd sourcing phase will begin.

The pilot project has been refining a standardized questionnaire that consumers ultimately could use to get sourcing information from manufactures.  Kanter said the pilot project has been refining that down to a set of information that can be obtained within a reasonable time frame.

“In the first iteration of this questionnaire there were some fairly complicated questions, such as whether the animals were treated humanely, and whether acid is used in the extraction process.  The questionnaire is much more condensed, now,” ​he said.

Kanter said market research supports the notion that the time has come for such an effort.

“Research has shown that 94% of consumers say  it’s important that brands are trying to be transparent, and 64% believe it’s a brand’s responsibility to provide complete product information,” ​he said.

Major supplier said transparency has always been part of game

Karen Todd, RD, vice president of global brand marketing for Kyowa Hakko USA, which is a major amino acid supplier, said her company has always supported sourcing transparency.

“Kyowa Hakko was the first company to commercialize fermentation-based amino acids over sixty years ago. We know the importance of transparency in helping consumers understand more about the origin and manufacturing methods used in finished products. We have found that our customers highly regard our Japanese quality, but also the origin of Kyowa’s Citrulline, Arginine and Glutamine that are made here in the USA.  Utilizing Kyowa’s amino acids will assist in truthful product labeling and not mislead consumers on the origin and quality of the ingredients used in the product,”​ Todd said.

Consultant thinks time might be right

Consultant Robert Wildman, PhD, is a protein expert and has had a long history in product development within the sports nutrition sphere.  He is the former chief science officer of Post Active Nutrition Brands, which includes Dymatize, Power Bar, Premier Protein and Supreme Protein.  Wildman said the Aminofacts organizers may have caught a sports nutrition market wave at the right time.

“I think the time might be right.  Five years ago, maybe not so much.  This is the kind of communication that consumers are coming to expect more and more, whereas five or ten years ago the market was driven by demand from bodybuilders who were looking for products full of crazy long ingredient names,”​ he said.

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