Sandra Einerhand is founder of Einerhand Science & Innovation, a nutrition consultancy providing science-based strategic advice to food manufacturers. She will be participating in Fi Global Insight’s Protein Deep Dive Day on 8 March. Click here to register for the event.
Sandra, your presentation for the Protein Deep Dive Day will discuss the protein needs of different age groups across the lifespan, from early life through adulthood to senior nutrition. Do you feel that food brands are taking a science-based approach when it comes to identifying people’s protein requirements across the lifespan and then applying this to new product development?
“It depends on the type of positioning. If companies are developing a product for sports nutrition and their target audience is athletes, or people that intend to be sporty, those companies are usually very aware of the role of protein in relation to sports.
“It's a difficult question if you broaden it to other areas. I would say in principle every company should, when they design a product, ensure it is a good quality product.
“But I can imagine that it's not always that easy for a company to really figure out the nutritional needs of a certain population. They might have internal nutritionists or food application specialists that determine the right amount of ingredients, such as protein, and the product format. But sometimes they need to reach out to external experts to get advice.”
The protein trend has become very mainstream, with protein products appealing to many different consumer categories. Is there a risk that companies will create broad ‘catch-all’ products that appeal to everyone and therefore fail to meet consumers’ protein needs across the lifespan?
“I'll start with an example that makes it easier to relate to. There is a huge demand from consumers for products that are more sustainable and that's driving many of the new innovations with regard to protein.
“However, [brands] should watch out for the fact that the quality of the product should also meet the totality of people’s nutritional needs. Many plant-based burgers today, for instance, may contain high amounts of salt and other additives, or they may not contain vitamin B 12, which is present in the meat burger.
“In that sense, it can be a challenge to meet all the nutritional needs when shifting to more sustainable products because, of course, these products should also be tasty so brands will add salt and flavours. The holy grail is to develop a very tasty, sustainable AND healthy product but it’s not that easy. However, developments in this space are happening very fast so they are getting better all the time.”
Is blending different sources of plant protein, such as pea and rice, sufficient to achieve an optimal amino acid profile?
“Blending is a way to make sure that [a product] carries all the essential amino acids, but indeed the digestibility is also important. I think it's easier to address these needs – a good amino acid profile and good digestibility – if you blend certain plant proteins than when you just focus on one source of plant protein. Plant proteins in general are of less quality, but there are some exceptions to that; for example, traditional soy among some others has a good Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS).”
Is more research needed to fully understand how different proteins and amino acids regulate metabolic, muscle and bone health, or do scientists already have a solid understanding of this area?
“I would say it’s very much needed because, like I said, during the lifespan, people’s needs change. Every age category has its specific needs with regard to protein […] from early life to adulthood. You also can imagine that a woman has different needs than an adult man but much of the work often focuses on men. In that sense, there is a need to focus research on specific categories. Also mechanistically, I think there are still some areas where we do not fully understand. What's the best amino acid profile for which benefit?”
Is there a need to conduct more nutrition research into the many protein alternatives that are being developed today?
“Yes, there will be more and more proteins from different sources being put onto the market, whether they are plant-based, cultured meat, from fermentation, or fungi, and they all have to be investigated not only with regard to the amino acid profile, but to their digestibility. How well are they absorbed, and do they support bone-, muscle-, metabolic health, et cetera, et cetera, in the same way as the traditional proteins that were used before? Probably not, as emerging science seems to indicate some differences exist."
Sports nutrition consumers tend to be quite clued into their own nutritional needs but is this the case for other population groups as well? If not, what needs to be done to address that gap?
“I have the impression that the elderly population is not so aware that protein is important in later life to maintain muscle mass and avoid frailty.
“Doctors usually do understand that higher amounts of protein are necessary to maintain muscle mass and bone health and consumers are getting more and more aware, but there's still a lot of people that are not aware of it.
“It is also intrinsically difficult for elderly people [to get sufficient protein intake] because when you grow older, you actually tend to eat less because you move around less, and you taste food differently too. So, more communication and information to elderly people is required from healthcare professionals […] and also the food manufacturers that target seniors with nutrition products. For the elderly, I think protein is the one of the most important ingredients to maintain a high quality of life.”