A global transition from animal to plant protein.
Protein is an essential macronutrient. Yet the way we produce and eat protein is placing a massive strain on our natural resources. By 2050, our global population is predicted to swell to 10 billion, over 2 billion more than it is today. This will leave a very big gap between our current food production and the amount we will need to feed everyone in 2050. Additionally, rising incomes and urbanization in developing countries will drive further increased demand for animal-based protein. We are at a critical turning point in mitigating the impact of climate change on our natural resources, and we need to take steps to protect our environment. Our food system, which covers everything from production to consumption is responsible for more than 25 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, (with meat and other animal products responsible for more than half of food-related greenhouse gas emissions). Incorporating more plant protein into our diet as a society is one of the most effective ways for us to feed more people sustainably, minimize our impact on climate change and make us healthier.
There is no doubt that we are certainly in the midst of a global transition from dairy to plant-based protein. Recent Kerry research consumer research confirmed that U.S. consumers are actively increasing their intake of plant protein for many reasons: lifestyle, cleaner eating, environmental, sustainability and better treatment of animals. www.kerry.com/na-en/explore/winning-with-plant-based-report. Most recently, the outbreak of COVID-19 has led consumers to feel vulnerable, which in turn has driven them to seek out healthier foods as a means to support their long-term health. The pandemic accelerated the move toward plant-based protein as consumers re-evaluated their diets and become more aware of the benefits of increased plant protein consumption.
Plant-based Protein Is on the Rise But Is it Sustainable?
Animal protein production demands significant amounts of our global energy and natural resource supplies. Plant protein production, on the other hand, has a lower environmental impact and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
However important to recognize that, no protein source, regardless of whether it is dairy, meat or plant is inherently “sustainable” or “unsustainable.” Animals need large amounts of feed crops, which means more emissions from fertilizers and transportation. Ruminants also emit methane gases themselves. For plant protein, yield per hectare, protein content, extraction energy, protein yield, distribution and further processing all need to be considered. Over-reliance on a limited number of crops can cause issues such as water scarcity, deforestation and biodiversity loss. A particular challenge for plant protein is that some key commodities face significantly challenging environmental issues. For example, almond producers face severe water challenges as they are traditionally produced in water stressed regions or soy producers face challenges on deforestation and land use change.
When considering the environmental impact of plant-based protein, it is important to analyze the entire supply chain, including the source, does it involve regenerative agricultural practices and is it produced in a sustainable manner, with minimal waste.
Plant-based Protein—Is it Better Nutritionally?
Proteins are composed by long chains of amino acids, which are used for almost every metabolic process in the body. There are two groups of amino acids namely non-essential amino acids that are produced by the body, and essential amino acids which must be supplied by food, because they cannot be produced by the body.
Animal derived proteins are high quality protein sources because they are rich in essential amino acids and they are complete proteins, meaning they provide all the essential amino acids our body needs. In contrast, while some plant proteins are complete such as soy, most lack some essential amino acids and are, as such, incomplete protein sources.
Plant proteins are usually harder to digest than animal proteins. The fibers and other components in plants make it harder for digestive enzymes to break down proteins for absorption in our digestive tract. However, specific processing such as hydrolysis can also make plant proteins easier to digest.
The Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) is the most routinely used indicator of protein quality. It evaluates the ability of a protein to meet the essential amino acid requirements of the body by calculating concentration of essential amino acids in the protein source as well as the true digestibility of the protein. The PDCAAS of a “complete” protein (one that provides the necessary essential amino acids after digestion) is 1 (e.g., whey protein) and if a protein has a score less than 1 this means that it cannot meet the body’s full essential amino acid requirements (e.g., wheat protein). Animal and soy proteins are the leading sources with a PDCAAS of 1, the other sources such as pea, rice or sunflower have PDCAAS <1 as they lack some essential amino acids.
One method to compensate for the lower protein quality of plant protein sources is to combine various plant proteins together, creating complementary protein blends that provide the desired amino acid profile. An additional factor to consider is that plant proteins can be more challenging to digest than animal proteins. The fibers and other components in plants make it harder for digestive enzymes to break down proteins for absorption in our digestive tract. The impact of this is that vegans may require a slightly higher protein intake to compensate for the decrease in digestibility of plant proteins.
Plant-based Protein—Is it the Healthier Choice?
Our bodies need amino acids for muscle synthesis and maintenance and therefore, protein is considered the most pivotal macronutrient for muscle and bone health, playing a key role in the healthy growth, development and maintenance of skeletal muscle. As we age, muscle mass growth and maintenance occur at a much slower rate and to compensate, our bodies need increased protein intake.
Plant proteins are rarely found in isolation; a wide variety of other nutrients come along as co-passengers with protein in plants. These nutrients include fiber, vitamins (e.g., folate, B12, D) and minerals (e.g., iron, zinc, calcium). As a result, diets high in plant protein, such as the vegetarian diet pattern, are associated with health benefits such as heart health or blood sugar management. Also, substitution of animal protein with plant protein is associated with a lower risk for certain cancers, cardiovascular disease and dementia mortality in women. There are also many studies that show no benefit when substituting plant-based proteins for animal proteins. A varied balanced diet that is rich in nutrients and in a healthy calorie range, whether it is animal-based or plant-based, will most likely lead to good health.
The current international RDA (recommended dietary allowance) advises 0.5-0.8 g of protein consumption per kg of bodyweight. Recently, groups such as the European Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism (ESPEN) and the International PROT-AGE Study Group have proposed new recommended requirements. They concluded that for healthy individuals over the age of 65 the recommended dietary protein intake be increased to 1.0—1.2 g protein/kg of body weight.
Animal protein is still the number one source for food and beverage formulations as it is versatile and easy to formulate. However, with the move toward plant-based foods, many products, which were traditionally manufactured with animal derived proteins, are now offering vegan varieties (beverages, dairy, meat, ice-cream, confectionary, etc.). This has represented many formulation challenges as it is simply not possible to include significant levels of plant proteins in foods without impacting on their sensory properties, in particular bitter taste and gritty texture The sensorial properties of plant-based protein ingredients are dependent on many parameters including their botanical origin and processing (e.g., heat treatment, flavoring, milling, etc.).
Flavor-masking technologies and fermentation are techniques used to improve the overall organoleptic profile of plant protein. In addition, a range of processing-techniques such as particle size reduction, protein hydrolysis are available to reduce grittiness and improve the mouthfeel of plant protein ingredients in food and beverage applications.
Committed to a Plant Protein Portfolio
Plant protein has a lot of potential and will be a key protein source in the future as more consumers choose plant sources for their protein intake. Underlying this are consumer concerns for global warming and our use of finite resources. Therefore, it is really important that food producers take a holistic view when considering new plant protein sources for their formulations, ensuring utilization of sustainable diverse protein sources, encouraging regenerative agricultural practices, processing optimization, affordability and nutritional quality.
Kerry was recently recognised among the food industry leaders and ranked No. 5 on the FAIRR (Farm, Animal Investment Risk and Return) list of global food companies, who are actively promoting and supporting plant-based foods and beverages. NIE
Gemma Velayos received her bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from the University of Barcelona and holds a Master of Science degree in human nutrition from the University of Surrey. She is currently an RD&A scientist for Proteins at Kerry, leading innovation and NPD projects for the Nutritional and Functional Protein business. More particularly, she is involved in projects around the development of Nutritional Beverages and Dairy Alternative applications and offer nutrition support to the Protein team. She has an interest in the role of proteins in diet and digestive health. Previous to her current role, Velayos worked in the Beverage Team leading development projects for the Foodservice and Convenience Store sector, from idea to launch.
Alice Nongonierma is a senior protein scientist with Kerry. She has been working in the Global Technology and Innovation Centre in Ireland for more than two years on the development of nutritional plant and dairy proteins. More particularly, she is involved in projects around the development of nutritional protein bars and beverages. She holds an engineering degree in food science & technology (ENSBANA, Dijon, France), MSc in food science (ENSBANA) and a PhD in food science (Danone Vitapole Palaiseau & ENSBANA). Previous to her role in Kerry, she worked for two years as a research officer on the acceleration of cheese ripening (Teagasc Moorepark, Fermoy, Ireland). Subsequently, she was been working as a post-doctoral researcher and a research fellow on the enzymatic generation of milk protein-derived bioactive peptides for nine years in the Food for Health Ireland (FHI) consortium (University of Limerick, Ireland). Nongonierma has published more than 70 peer-reviewed publications in the generation, isolation and characterization of bioactive peptides from dairy, plant and edible insect proteins as well as in the flavor characterization of dairy products.