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The case for alternatives to animal-sourced protein

June 03, 2019

Alternative proteins

Among food consumers, there is rising interest in plant-based foods. However, one of the concerns of eating more plant-based foods is adequate protein intake. Presenters in session 120, “Alternative Proteins for Optimal Human Health: Science, Development, Sensory, and Regulations,” discussed the challenges and opportunities in developing new plant-based protein products.

Cosmin Beliciu of Eurofins Sensory Consumer and Product Research said that among the top 10 key health and nutrition trends are plant-based eating and increased protein consumption. Plant-based foods are going mainstream, he said, and factors contributing to their positioning are taste as well as ethical and environmental concerns. Beliciu said that many of the consumers interested in plant protein sources believe that plant proteins are not processed; however, this is far from true. In fact, many plant-based protein products are processed. One challenge for product manufacturers is that most people prefer to obtain plant-based protein from familiar sources such as nuts and beans, he added. Other challenges are the rise in popularity of specialized diets, such as consumers who avoid soy and gluten. Still, major brands are experimenting with plant-based offerings: For example, Danone offers plant-based brands WhiteWave and Harmless Harvest while Dean Foods has Good Karma Foods. Ingredient manufacturers see the opportunity to create a supply of plant-based protein ingredients: For example, Ingredion has pea protein isolates, Cargill has pea protein isolates, and ADM has a new pea processing plant.

Roger Clemens of the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy said that many commercial protein blends combine various plant proteins together: for example, whole grains, soy, vegetables, and legumes; whole grains, legumes, chickpeas, and vegetables; and collagen, nuts, and seeds. While animal-based protein provides all nine of the essential amino acids and are called complete proteins, most plant-based proteins are deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids and are therefore considered incomplete proteins. (Exceptions are algae, buckwheat, chia seeds, farro, hemp seeds, quinoa, and soy—all of which are complete protein sources.) Clemens said that there are all sorts of alternatives to meat protein, but product developers must be mindful of protein quality and the fact that proportions of various amino acids vary across different protein sources. This means product developers should ensure that alternative protein products are complementary, complete, and have high digestibility. Additional considerations Clemens pointed out are checking the GRAS status of protein ingredients and ensuring protein quality.

Dietrich Conze of Chromadex Spherix Consulting said that one of the main challenges of developing alternative protein sources is ensuring safety, and determining the safety of protein products derived from new and alternative sources is particularly challenging. This challenge can be overcome through carefully designed quantitative risk assessments, Conze said, adding that quantitative risk assessments are the cornerstone of food safety. Relying on generally recognized as safe (GRAS) determination is one of the best mechanisms in the United States for documenting the safety of a food ingredient. Because GRAS determination does not require sponsors to notify the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is a good way to determine ingredient safety, Conze advised, as GRAS standards mean that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm.