Dispatches from fie 2015

Busting the myth of the magic superfood protein

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

'If you ask industry they are going to say their protein is great. That dairy is great and we should never stop eating dairy,' says Wageningen researcher. Image credit: iStock.com / marekuliasz
'If you ask industry they are going to say their protein is great. That dairy is great and we should never stop eating dairy,' says Wageningen researcher. Image credit: iStock.com / marekuliasz

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Insects, ancient grains and algae. There is no such thing as a perfect protein and we must bust this myth of the ultimate ‘superfood’ protein, says researcher.

In 2013 the United Nations (UN) predicted the world population would climb from 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050.

This, coupled with emerging middle classes in many developing economies with nutrition demands of their own, has led to a scramble for new ways to feed these extra mouths.

But Dr Costas Nikiforidis, research associate and lecturer at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, says a bit more balance in presentation and consumption of novel protein sources and a lot more research on protein structures was needed.

“In the 80s we thought we were experts. We had this idea that every protein would be the best protein ever and there was a trend of every five years we [would] see the researchers and the companies, everybody, jumping on the same topic then another topic and there was this cycle there,”​ he told us at the industry event Food Ingredients Europe (FiE), where he presented on alternative protein sources.  

“But there is never one single truth about anything.”

Setting the agenda

The EU, through the European Research Council (ERC), awards research grants in five-year chunks and this has led to fickleness in focus on different ingredients, he said.

“The EU says for the next target we’ll focus on this, then everybody jumps on this topic.”

Of course commercial interests also played into this environment.

quinoa cooked raw
Quinao in various forms. Image: iStock

“Companies say one protein is better than the other but that’s about marketing. We still are far, far away from knowing. If you ask industry they are going to say their protein is great. That dairy is great and we should never stop eating dairy.”

This was a terminology trap even major institutions had fallen into.

The United Nations (UN) made 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, calling the grain a 'superfood' with the potential to contribute significantly to its challenge of zero hunger by 2030. 

Dr Nikiforidis said this was unhelpful.  “I don’t fully agree with that – it’s too much.”

In reality we do not yet know the social, economic and health impact of focusing so singularly on novel (for Europeans at least) sources of protein.

“We need to wait before we say things.”

Perfect protein? 

During his presentation at FiE, Nikiforidis was asked what a perfect protein is.

He told us we simply did not know yet. 

A complete or whole protein contains all nine essential amino acids necessary in the human diet - tryptophan, threonine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine+cystine, phenylalanine+tyrosine, valine and histidine.

This was an important first step, he said, but not the full story. 

"If we consider protein like a rope with different compounds inside then for sure I know I need to have some essential parts there because without them the quality of my protein is not that high. This is the first story. Then the sequence is very important - so maybe there are these things there but if they are not in the right place this is very important as well.

"Then what is around the protein? Some have more antioxidants, etc."

He said the research community still had a lot to learn about these complex factors that may or may not make up the ultimate so-called ‘superfood’ protein. 

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