More protein to the people? It’s not that easy.

The University of Aberdeen is producing an industry-facing report that explores the challenges and opportunities faced by industry in producing high-protein food solutions for healthy ageing.

Emma Hooker
Emma Hooker Researcher, The Rowett Institute, School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition, the University of Aberdeen
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Published: Jan. 17. 2018

The University of Aberdeen is producing an industry-facing report that explores the challenges and opportunities faced by industry in producing high-protein food solutions for healthy ageing.

More protein, please
While numerous studies have shown that protein-enriched diets can slow the decline of muscle mass and strength (sarcopenia) related to ageing, approximately one third of European adults over 50 years consume less protein than typical daily intake recommendations. There can, of course, be many reasons for this unfortunate situation, but one crucial piece of the puzzle seems to be missing: We are failing to meet the need for food products to support healthy ageing.

Addressing this gap is the focus of a major project, Protein for Life, underway at the University of Aberdeen, designed to support the food industry in developing products that can step up to the challenge. We’re developing and disseminating guidelines for the food industry, and my own role, at this stage, is to assist efforts to develop prototype products that are high in protein for our ageing population.

Product design recommendations
Just how much protein is needed per eating occasion (breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack) for a typical older adult? Research indicates the level lies around 25-30 grams per meal if muscle loss is to be prevented or, at least, minimised. So, when designing suitable, effective products to counter sarcopenia, the amount of protein contained in the product is a key consideration. But it’s not the only one.

Ideally, the protein source itself should be sustainable. Plant proteins, for example, have lower environmental impact and fewer negative health associations compared with meat proteins. Similarly, whey protein production sharply reduces the environmental effects of cheese production by turning production waste into tangible benefits for health and nutrition across a wide range of applications. So both plant and whey proteins are useful sources in today’s market.

Quality aspects
In the same vein, the protein source used in new products must be of high quality. By this, we mean that it should ideally contain all the essential amino acids, and have high digestibility and bio-availability when consumed. Milk proteins fulfil these aims, while many individual plant protein sources are in their early development phase and often need to be combined to provide all the essential amino acids.

Plant proteins also contain less protein per gram compared with milk proteins, and their quality, palatability, availability, safety and cost can present additional challenges, too. So, while there’s a lot going on in plant protein development these days, current production levels of high-quality products are still a drop in the ocean compared with the world’s steadily growing need for additional protein. Finally, the end product must be acceptable to the consumer: tasty, visually appealing, and affordable.

Going to market
One thing is to be able to develop such products, quite another is to get them to the market. And for food manufacturers, consumer demand needs to be strong enough to justify development, production, distribution and marketing investments. Cost is, in fact, the primary limiting factor for product development and is significantly impacted by raw ingredient costs and ingredient functionality. 

Our research has highlighted low levels of consumer awareness of the need for additional protein to combat age-related muscle loss, something that is slowing the introduction of new, protein-heavy products around the world. Part of the project, therefore, is to investigate current beliefs in the population (primarily in the UK and the rest of Europe) about protein, and to explore whether, for example, age-specific nutrition claims on packaging could aid awareness.

Related to this is the task of getting stronger input from public health bodies to create a clear and concise health message for consumers. Granted, that’s easier said than done, given the necessary complexities of adapting labelling policies and practices to suit new needs. Just imagine, for example, the difficulty posed by going out with new labelling practices as well as marketing campaigns when we also want to be sure not to increase consumption among younger adults who, generally speaking, don’t need more protein than they’re already getting. Further research into consumer attitudes and behaviours is needed to help develop an effective marketing approach for age-related high-protein products.

There’s plenty of light on the horizon, however, for solving these issues. In particular, the project has revealed an industry that is proactive, well-equipped, and which is likely to be highly successful at overcoming the recognised and emerging formulation challenges.

(Protein for Life is funded by the Research Councils UK's ‘Priming Food Partnerships’ initiative which is supported by four councils: BBSRC, MRC, EPSRC and ESRC. For further information on the Priming Food Partnerships, go to the BBSRC website.).


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