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Improving the Nutritional Profile of Alternative Proteins

Albion Minerals®
Alternative Protein Alternative Protein

The alternative protein market has experienced significant growth due to increasing customer demand for sustainable and plant-based protein options. As manufacturers continue to develop and expand their product offerings in this space, it is crucial to ensure that these alternative protein products meet the nutritional needs of consumers, both in terms of macronutrients and micronutrients.

In its infancy, the sector’s focus was to perfect macronutrient profiles to ensure customers were satisfied with protein and carbohydrate levels when buying meat alternatives.

In the context of alternative protein sources, it is essential to consider the protein’s completeness. Most plant-based proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids required by the human body. To address this, manufacturers must combine different plant proteins strategically to create a complete protein source that meets the body’s amino acid needs.

Furthermore, while plant-based diets have numerous health benefits, they may pose challenges in obtaining specific micronutrients like vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, zinc and calcium. To develop sustainable and nutritious alternative protein products, manufacturers must focus on micronutrient innovation and ensure that their products contribute to a balanced diet.

What Is a Micronutrient?

Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals needed by the body in very small amounts. Yet despite not needing a vast quantity of them, their impact on our body’s health is critical. Most vitamins and minerals cannot be made by the body, so they need to be provided in the diet. Becoming clinically deficient in any micronutrient can result in mild to life-threatening symptoms.

Micronutrients are essential for a variety of physiological processes and functions, including supporting body growth and development, enabling the production of enzymes, hormones and other substances. As a result, micronutrient deficiencies can not only trigger poor health but can also lead to reduced energy levels and mental clarity. This can lead to reduced educational outcomes, reduced work productivity, mental health issues and increased disease risk.

The importance of their inclusion in a balanced diet is therefore clear and important.

Why Do Alternative Protein Products Need Micronutrients?

Current plant-based meat alternatives are likely to lack critical micronutrients found in meat and meat products. A review reported that diets based on novel plant-based substitutes were below daily requirements for calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc and vitamin B12 and exceeded the reference diet for saturated fat, sodium and sugar.

Therefore, while alternative proteins are delivering on their namesakes, there is work to do in building out their complete nutritional profile. This is a focus in both plant-based meats, but also plant-based “milk” alternative, which tests show are much lower in key micronutrients than cow’s milk. While alternative-protein diets are becoming increasingly popular, not all sources of nutrients are the same. While the same nutrients may be present in many plants, they can sometimes be less available to the human body to digest and absorb.

Therefore, nutrient bioavailability must be considered when innovating to incorporate micronutrients. This is, as defined by the European Food Information Council, the “the proportion of a nutrient that is absorbed from the diet and used for normal body functions.”

Bioavailability’s Role

Every food that is eaten needs to be digested and absorbed in the intestine, and the presence of some substances in plants can make that process more difficult for the body.

Take for example iron—the deficiency of which the World Health Organization describes as the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world. It is a core micronutrient found in red meat and we therefore see deficiencies prevalent in developing countries where diets are predominately plant-based.

Iron is present in two forms: haem (found in red meat and other animal products) and non-haem iron (found in plant sources, such as green leafy vegetables, legumes, and grains). Iron bioavailability can vary significantly due to inhibitors (substances that can reduce/deter nutrient absorption) within the same or other foods in a meal. Phytates, which are found in legumes and grains, are arguably the most potent inhibitors to non-haem iron absorption, thereby reducing iron bioavailability considerably.

Many studies have shown that common cooking and preparation methods such as fermenting, germinating and de-hulling legumes can reduce phytate levels and increase iron bioavailability in foods.

Calcium is another inhibitor of iron bioavailability, due to competition for absorption across the intestinal wall, when the two micronutrients are part of the same meal and calcium quantity is high. On the other hand, foods rich in vitamin C can increase plant-based iron absorption because this vitamin binds to non-haem iron to form a chelate that is soluble and digestible within the small intestine.

These are the considerations that manufacturers need to know when improving the micronutrient profile and bioavailability of their products. Not only do they need to consider what is lost when using alternative ingredients, they need to consider how they interact to be useful to the human body.

Innovations in this category have the potential to create alternative protein products that are not only delicious and sustainable but also nutritionally well-balanced. By incorporating complete proteins and considering nutrient bioavailability, manufacturers can develop products that cater to both macro and micronutrient needs, promoting better health and well-being. NIE

Dr. Aisling Aherne, nutrition science manager for Kerry Europe, is a registered nutritionist and a fellow of the Institute of Food Science and Technology. She has more than 20 years of experience working in nutrition science in areas such as scientific research, clinical nutrition, and science communications. Her current role involves working with customers and Kerry colleagues on product development, reformulation and sustainable nutrition, as well as actively engaging with external nutrition stakeholders.