Healthy eating is increasingly important due to the UK’s ageing population. Protein, in particular, is crucial for older consumers, as it has the ability to slow age-related muscle loss, or sarcopenia.
Despite this, one in three adults over the age of 50 do not consume enough protein, and there are significant challenges to developing high-protein products for this group that are sustainable, functional and affordable, whilst also tasting good.
Protein for Life has been researching solutions to the problem. Over the last 18 months, a team of academics has been working towards the development of an industry toolkit for the formulation of palatable and sustainable high-protein foods.
What is Protein for Life?
Led by Newcastle University, Protein for Life is a collaborative project that includes academic partners from the Universities of Bristol, Sheffield, Liverpool and Aberdeen as well as several industry stakeholders. The team has assessed the factors related to protein intake from mid-life (40-54 years) and younger old (55-69 years) through to older old (70+ years).
“This has been a successful partnership and it is important that academics and industry work together more to tackle important public health issues,” says Professor Emma Stevenson, principal investigator of Protein for Life. “The project outcomes will hopefully help the development of new, sustainable, cost-effective higher protein products suitable for an ageing population.”
An industry report of the findings is now available. So what are some of the main challenges for product development?
The quality and quantity of plant protein in products
Plant-based proteins offer a more environmentally sustainable option compared with animal proteins. A greater focus on increasing consumption of plant-based foods is also in line with government health recommendations to increase intakes of fruit, vegetables, pulses and legumes.
A survey by Mintel released in November 2018 reported that 34% of UK meat eaters had cut their consumption in the first six months of the year and a further 21% said they were interested in reducing their consumption in the future. Just a few weeks ago, Mintel claimed that the UK is now number one globally for vegan product launches.
However, there are nutritional issues with the quality of protein in plant-based foods. This is due to problems with amino acid content and the ease of digestion and absorption of some protein ingredients.
“The greatest inhibitors of protein quality are anti-nutritional factors which occur naturally in many plant proteins and/or develop during processing,” says Professor Alex Johnstone, co-investigator of Protein for Life.
However, she adds that there are “a variety of ways to reduce these anti-nutritional factors and improve the protein quality, such as manipulation of the raw protein ingredient by selective breeding; fermentation and germination; complimentary blending of protein ingredients as well as consideration of post-production storage and packaging.”
For example, selective breeding to produce beans without lectins or lower phytates can result in pulse flours with improved nutritional profiles for the manufacture of biscuits and baked goods. Fermentation of faba bean flour can increase the amount of amino acids from 7g per kg up to 166g per kg. The quality of cereal grains in breads limited in the amino acid lysine can be improved by blending with a high-lysine dulse seaweed protein.
These are just some of the options available to manufacturers. To synthesise all this information, Protein for Life advocates for an online amino acid 'complementation database,' which would greatly assist manufacturers in developing complete plant protein products.
The challenge of palatable high-protein products
Developing high-protein products with appealing tastes and textures can be challenging. The protein ingredient itself often has distinct attributes (for example, bitterness in soy protein or beany/earthiness of pea protein).
Off flavours can also develop with processing and interactions with other ingredients in the food matrix.
Due to advances in research and development – as well as supportive ingredient suppliers – palatability was not regarded as a major barrier by the food industry for product development. However, this may become more challenging when developing products with up to 30g plant protein per serve.
Furthermore, the use of protein fractions (concentrates, isolates, flours) is not suitable in all products, and it can significantly increase product cost.
Consumer awareness and acceptance
A lack of consumer awareness was identified as the main non-manufacturing barrier to the development of age-related high-protein products. Clear and concise health messages for consumers aged 50 and over are required, so that the importance of protein is understood, as well as how much protein is needed and when and how to include it in the diet.
The current lack of information is resulting in a lack of consumer demand for high-protein products aimed at older adults, who currently do not tend to seek out this kind of functional food, even if it has been developed specifically with them in mind.
Careful marketing of such products is required to avoid any patronising or ageing messages – one of a number of suggestions that Protein for Life has for manufacturers.
“A set of design rules for industry will be developed for the formulation of palatable and sustainable higher-protein foods,” adds Professor Emma Stevenson, “and a white paper of the findings from the Protein for Life project is due to be published in March.”