Plant Protein Popularity Picks Up

Plant sources of proteins possess some benefits over animal-sourced ingredients. However, how do they stack up nutritionally?

By Claudia O’Donnell, Contributing Editor

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Do you want to live a healthy, happy 100 years or longer? Author Dan Buettner’s books The Blue Zones and The Blue Zones Solutions delve into the lifestyles and beliefs of five populations documented to have some of the highest concentration of centenarians in the world.

The populations, whether located in Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; or Loma Linda, Calif., have key elements in common. They include social connections, physical movement, certain attitudes and beliefs and, yes, diets.

Blue Zone diets are not vegetarian. Meat was consumed, although in small portions of three to four ounces some five times a month on average. The diets were, however, plant-based, often with a focus on beans.

Interest in plant foods, including as a protein source, has been increasing. In an April 2016 Packaged Facts National Consumer Survey, 42 percent of consumers said high protein was "especially important" in choosing foods to eat, says Research Director David Sprinkle. More specifically, a February 2016 Packaged Facts report “Food Formulation and Ingredient Trends: Plant Proteins” found 43.2 percent of U.S. consumers said they somewhat or strongly agreed that they sought out vegetarian sources of proteins. This fell to 28 percent of those 35 and older, Sprinkle notes.

Drivers behind this trend extend beyond personal health to include ethical considerations. The globe’s population is predicted to grow from 7.4 billion to over 9 billion in less than 24 years. With some countries already struggling to feed significant segments of their population, the expectation is that as the mouths to feed on earth increase and irrigable land decreases, food insecurity will increase. Additionally, animal welfare and agricultural practices (environmental health) are important for many.

Legumes and BeansA number of food processors have gotten the word. In tracking specific proteins and protein-rich ingredients used in newly launched snack bars making a protein claim, Mintel Group’s Global New Products Database finds that over a three-year period (April 2013/March 2014 to April 2015/March 2016) the use of rice protein increased from 6 percent to 15 percent in the new products tracked. Pea protein use similarly increased 5 percent to 8 percent to 14 percent.

This trend extends to whole-food components with a reputation for higher levels of protein. For example, the use of nuts increased from 67 percent to 75 percent of the snack bars making protein claims, while chia seed use tripled from 7 percent to 21 percent in the same period, Mintel reports.

Additionally, research points to plant-based protein continuing to increase into the future. The upcoming Global Food Forums 2017 R&D Report: Protein Ingredients asked 200 food, beverage and nutritional supplement formulators whether the use of any of the 29 listed types of protein ingredients would decrease, remain the same or increase in use in the next two years.

The majority of respondents used animal-based proteins as both their primary and secondary protein sources for their products. However, respondents predicted a bright future for plant-based proteins. The top 11 proteins projected to have the greatest increase in use in the next two years are all plant-based.

Pea proteins head the list (82 percent said its use would increase, 3 percent said decrease), followed by quinoa (77 percent increase, 3 percent decrease), chia (76 percent increase, 2 percent decrease) and then algae protein and pulses (for both, 60 percent said it would increase and 7 percent said it would decrease in use).

Perhaps riding on a “all things coconut” trend, 52 percent predicted coconut protein would increase in use while only 5 percent said it would decrease. It took insect protein to break the plant protein streak, coming in 12th with 41 percent predicting increased use and 14 percent decreased use.

Plant-based wellness

Taking a broad overview, protein is essential for health. It is one of four classes of macronutrients, the others being carbohydrates, fat and alcohol. With the exception of alcohol, macronutrients are consumed in relatively large amounts by nearly everyone and provide humans with most of their energy requirements. Of the four, protein is considered an essential nutrient due to the essential amino acids it contains.

Additionally, as one market researcher points out, it’s the only macronutrient category that has not experienced negative press. For example, there are no popular “low protein diets.”

Plant proteins’ reputation for health has been supported by much research. One recent example is the study “Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake with All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality,” by Mingyang Song, MD, et al., published online Aug. 1 by JAMA Internal Medicine. The study followed 131,342 participants over the course of several decades and found that higher plant protein diets were associated with reduced risk of death, particularly for those with at least one unhealthy behavior such as being overweight, sedentary, smoking and so on.

Studies in protein consumption in general have supported, to a greater or lesser extent, a positive role in health conditions such as energy, weight management and related conditions such as diabetes and muscle development, maintenance and recovery.

For muscle health benefits, and in the hot application area of sports nutrition, whey proteins have predominated. Is there a greater opportunity for plant sources?

Matching animal protein quality

Generally speaking, there are nine essential amino acids for humans; that is, they cannot be synthesized in the body: phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine. Another six (arginine, cysteine, glycine, glutamine, proline and tyrosine) are considered "conditionally essential," because under certain conditions caused by disease or injury they cannot be synthesized. In reality, categorizing amino acids into essential and non-essential amino acids is complex in that some amino acids can be produced from others.

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