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Amino Acids & Proteins: The Latest Scoop

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Albion Minerals®
Amino Acids Amino Acids

Amino acids and their protein partners have been a mainstay in finished products for years, but manufacturers are continuously finding new ways for implementation.

Many in the natural products sector are aware of the fact that proteins are comprised of hundreds of smaller units called amino acids, but around this statement lies various misconceptions.

For one, the terms “complete” and “incomplete” can often cause confusion when used to describe types of proteins.

“Animal proteins are classified as complete proteins, whereas plant proteins, except for soy protein, are consider incomplete proteins. However, this clarification is misleading,” explained Mark Messina, PhD, MS, executive director of the Soy Nutrition Institute. “The body doesn’t have a requirement for protein per se; it has a requirement for amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Proteins are long chains of amino acids. In simple terms, when we eat foods containing protein, we digest the protein into its constituent amino acids. This digestion step is necessary so we can absorb the amino acids. Once absorbed, we can use those amino acids to build the proteins our body needs.

“There are nine amino acids (20 in total) that our body can’t make on its own in sufficient quantities to meet its needs, so we need to get those amino acids from foods,” he continued. “These nine amino acids are referred to as essential amino acids. We need different amounts of each of the essential amino acids. Complete proteins provide all the essential amino acids in amounts needed by the body. This means the protein is well digested and has an amino acid pattern that well matches our body’s needs. Incomplete proteins are low in one or more essential amino acids. The term incomplete implies a protein is missing some of the essential amino acids. This is not true; they are just low in one or more.”

Each specific protein offers a different function, and their roles can be applicable to multiple fields.

Popular Proteins & Technology

By way of Messina’s explanation, it is apparent that there are various differences between what qualifies a complete versus incomplete protein—he noted that soy falls in the complete category because when it is consumed at the recommended level for total protein—its RDA, or recommended dietary allowance, is 0.8 g/kg body weight—all of the aforementioned essential amino acids are provided in amounts that meet the body’s needs.

It is also important to note that the method used by the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) for evaluating the protein quality is known as PDCAAS, or the protein digestibility corrected amino acid score. The highest score that a protein can receive is a 1.0.

As seen with the Beyond Meat popularity, an up-and-coming niche in the protein segment are proteins that are available in meat substitutes or alternatives.

“Plant proteins in meat alternatives is a fast-growing sector,” Cecilia Wittbjer, vice president of marketing, Parabel (Florida), pointed out. “What the multinational food companies are looking for is taste, functionality and scalability. With our Lentein protein, we believe we can grow our crop faster and more sustainably which provides a solution to most companies.”

Heiko Zipp, director of business team nutrition at Wacker Biosolutions, Wacker Chemie AG in Germany, was in agreement, noting that consumers are really looking to eat more plant-based products, resulting in a demand in both plant-based proteins and amino acids.

The company also manufactures L-cystine and L-cysteine utilizing a patented method.

“Wacker is the first company in the world to produce plant-based L-cystine and L-cysteine in a sustainable fermentation process,” he said. “This patented technique was awarded an environmental prize in 2008, because it uses 96 percent less hydrochloric acid than is typically required for chemical extraction from hair and feathers. The raw materials are entirely plant-based and inorganic, so that any potential contamination due to animal or human pathogens can be eliminated completely. The production process yields products that are vegan, kosher and halal. Wacker’s natural L-cystine and vegan L-cysteine are marketed under the trade name Fermopure.”

The market for these ingredients is a positive one.

“The market for plant proteins is exploding due to the ever-increasing demand for plant-based food products,” Wittbjer observed. “In the nutraceutical space, the demand for plant protein is also growing, as evidenced by all the new products launched in the sports nutrition sector with vegan claims.”

And as more information is readily accessible via online outlets and the like, consumers are adopting healthier eating habits.

“The market for proteins and amino acids has grown over the past years,” Zipp explained. “One reason is that demand for nutritious foods has increased as consumers have become more health-consciousness. This has prompted food and beverage manufacturers to introduce products fortified with essential nutrients, such as amino acids. Demand for these substances has risen correspondingly.”

Transcendent Benefits & Research

For Wacker, its branded Fermopure items offer various advantages spanning multiple industries.

“Thanks to their properties and high level of purity,” Zipp said, “Wacker’s Fermopure products have a broad application range in the food and pharmaceutical industries. They find use in the manufacture of flavorings, as additives in baked good and as an essential component of infant nutrition. L-cystine and L-cysteine are popular ingredients in nutritional supplements for strengthening skin, hair and nails. The pharmaceutical sector uses cysteine in expectorants or to produce insulin, for example.”

And according to Wittbjer, “Lentein plant protein has an amino acid profile similar to whey protein and has a high ratio of BCAAs [branched-chain amino acids]. We have recently added a hydrolysate to our product offering, which is something that the sports nutrition sector has been waiting for.”

Other than sports nutrition, when it comes to research, the category has demonstrated feasibility in additional fields, including brain health and inflammation.

“For the nutraceutical space,” Wittbjer observed, “there are so many new and interesting studies. There is ample proof of plant proteins being not just more sustainable but also healthier than animal proteins. The plant proteins also have other benefits regarding health and wellness as regards to other macro and micronutrients that are naturally contained within the plants. There are some new studies around cognitive function and Lutein, which show promising results and our Lentein Complete, for example, contains more than your daily value of this pigment in one serving of our plant protein. In addition, Lentein contains plant-based vitamin B12, which is normally only found in animal proteins and is a necessary component for red blood cell formation, DNA synthesis and neurological function.”

This area is constantly evolving, but some of today’s dietary trends, including the keto diet, are impacting the amount of proteins that consumers are eating.

“Recent nutrition trends, such as the keto diet, are promoting the consumption of large amounts of proteins,” Zipp concluded. “Also, as more and more people adopt active, healthy lifestyles, they are turning to sports nutrition. This often includes consumption of proteins and amino acids. At the same time, the demand for plant-based products is rising, but so far, e.g., the protein powder in sports supplements has mostly been based on whey. There is therefore increasing interest in developing plant-based protein and amino acid alternatives with acceptable taste and high biological quality.” NIE

Side-bar:

Ketogenic Diet Appears to Prevent Cognitive Decline in Mice, Study Finds

Scientists are now demonstrating that the gut and the brain are more closely connected than once thought, and in fact the health of one can affect the other.

Ai-Ling Lin and her colleagues at the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky have published two studies that demonstrate the effect of diet on cognitive health in animals.

The first, in Scientific Reports, demonstrated that neurovascular function improved in mice who followed a ketogenic diet regimen.

“Neurovascular integrity, including cerebral blood flow and blood-brain barrier function, plays a major role in cognitive ability,” Lin said. “Recent science has suggested that neurovascular integrity might be regulated by the bacteria in the gut, so we set out to see whether the ketogenic diet (KD) enhanced brain vascular function and reduced neurodegeneration risk in young healthy mice.”

Lin et al considered the KD—characterized by high levels of fat, protein and low levels of carbohydrates—a good candidate for the study, as it has previously shown positive effects for patients with other neurological disorders, including epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and autism. Two groups of nine mice, aged 12-14 weeks, were given either KD or a regular diet. After 16 weeks, Lin et al saw that the KD mice had significant increases in cerebral blood flow, improved balance in the microbiome in the gut, lower blood glucose levels and body weight, and a beneficial increase in the process that clears amyloid-beta from the brain—a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

“While diet modifications, the ketogenic diet in particular, has demonstrated effectiveness in treating certain diseases, we chose to test healthy young mice using diet as a potential preventative measure,” Lin said. “We were delighted to see that we might indeed be able to use diet to mitigate risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”

According to Lin, the beneficial effects seen from the KD are potentially due to the inhibition of a nutrient sensor called mTOR (mechanistic target of rapamycin), which has shown to affect lifespan extension and health promotion. In addition to the KD, Lin said, mTOR can also be inhibited by simple caloric restriction or the pharmaceutical rapamycin.

The second study, published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, used neuroimaging techniques to explore in vivo the effects of rapamycin, the KD, or simple caloric restriction on the cognitive function of both young and aging mice.

“Our earlier work already demonstrated the positive effect rapamycin and caloric restriction had on neurovascular function,” Lin said. “We speculated that neuroimaging might allow us to see those changes in the living brain.”

Her data suggested that caloric restriction functioned as a sort of “fountain of youth” for aging rodents, whose neurovascular and metabolic functions were better than those of young mice on an unrestricted diet.

Lin emphasizes that it’s too early to know whether the regimens will confer the same benefit in humans, but since rapamycin and other mTOR inhibitors have already been approved by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) and are widely prescribed for other diseases, it’s realistic to think that study in humans could follow relatively quickly.

Linda Van Eldik, PhD, director of the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, said that Lin’s work justifies a transition to similar studies in humans, since all of the methods Lin used in animal models can be readily applied to humans.

“Ai-Ling’s lab was the first to use neuroimaging to see these changes in a living brain, and the potential link to changes in the gut microbiome,” she said. “Her work has tremendous implications for future clinical trials of neurological disorders in aging populations.”

Lin and her lab are already doing just that, designing a clinical trial to understand the role of the gut microbiome in neurovascular dysfunction (a risk factor for AD) and in healthy aging.

“We will use neuroimaging to identify the association between gut microbiome balance and brain vascular function in individuals over 50 years of age, with an ultimate goal to design and test nutritional and pharmacological interventions that will prevent Alzheimer’s disease,” she said.

Lin’s work is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

For more information, visit www.uky.com.

Side-bar end*

For More Information:

Parabel, www.parabel.com, www.lentein.com
The Soy Nutrition Institute, www.thesoynutritioninstitute.com
Wacker Biosolutions, Wacker Chemie AG, www.wacker.com

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