New protein knowledge will change nutritional guidelines, save lives

Monday 13 November 2023

The nutrition world is soon to implement a new way of assessing protein quality in foods, thanks largely to work done by researchers at Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University.

The Riddet Institute team at the symposium.

Last updated: Monday 13 November 2023

The current guidelines are flawed and new techniques are revealing gaps in global nutrition.

The world’s leading experts in protein, including several New Zealand scientists, met in Utrecht in September to discuss ways to address the nutritional needs of a burgeoning world population.

Massey’s Distinguished Professor Paul Moughan, a Riddet Institute Fellow Laureate, was one of them, also chairing the 2023 International Symposium on Dietary Protein for Human Health on 14-16 September.

Along with Distinguished Professor Moughan, who is a leading authority on protein and nutrition, seven scientists gave presentations at the event that were either New Zealand researchers or have Massey connections as Riddet Fellows.

The Riddet Institute is a Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE), hosted by Massey University, which focuses on fundamental and advanced food research.

The New Zealand-based presenters aligned with the university were Senior Research Officer Dr Suzanne Hodgkinson, Adjunct Professor Barbara Burlingame, Research Officer Dr Sylvia Chungchunlam, PhD candidate Natalie Ahlborn and Riddet Fellow Dr Andrew Fletcher of Fonterra.

A total of 51 scientists spoke at the three day summit.

The symposium reached 400 people, with 300 in-person delegates and a further 100 so far accessing the scientific presentations, according to organisers.

Key questions were addressed at the symposium, such as how much protein we really need and why, how often we need it, and how we know what types of protein are most important to the human diet.

Distinguished Professor Moughan says good quality protein is vital to human health and traditionally the best sources have been from meat and dairy products. Made up of nine essential amino acids, protein is key to healthy growth, development and metabolism. Humans will be malnourished without it.  

Protein is found in animal and plant foods in different amounts, is digested at different rates, and the body cannot digest some forms of protein. Excess protein that is not used by the body cannot be stored.

Much of the data collected by scientists over the last 10 years on protein and amino acid digestibility has been spearheaded by research done at the Riddet Institute by Distinguished Professor Moughan and Dr Suzanne Hodgkinson.

The outcome of that research, called Digestible Indispensable Amino Acids Score (DIAAS), is a new scoring methodology that evaluates amino acid absorption from protein foods. It is set to replace the existing guidelines and rewrite the nutritional textbook.

Distinguished Professor Moughan says that currently, food labelling in New Zealand only shows protein quantity, not quality. Yet the ability to digest and absorb protein is different from different protein sources.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Nutrition Officer Maria Xipsiti said the forum was an opportunity to reflect on advances in the scientific understanding of dietary protein since a landmark FAO Expert Consultation on Dietary Protein Quality Evaluation in Human Nutrition in 2011. Distinguished Professor Moughan also chaired that meeting.  

“The symposium provided a technical update on recent scientific developments of critical importance concerning the role of protein in human nutrition, health and wellbeing,” Ms Xipsiti says.

She says the research presented would be key to achieving th United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by 2030, as well as bringing the protein database closer. The United Nations projects the world population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050, putting pressure on food production systems.

Distinguished Professor Moughan said the DIAAS protein work will help stave off malnutrition and is critical to future food security.

“In the last decade there have been studies on 500 separate human foods, which gives us a data set that is superior to any other similar data set that has ever existed," he says.

“So, I believe it is high time to embrace that data, to embrace that effort and the investment that has been made worldwide and move to a superior system of describing dietary protein quality that would be better for people, that would be better for health, and better for the planet.”

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Nutrition Specialist Dr Victor Owino says the forum was an occasion for people from agencies, industry and academia all around the world to come together.

He said alternative protein sources such as underutilised crops, edible insects, microbial protein, microalgae, myocoprotein and cultured foods could help feed the world.

“However, the nutritional value of these foods must be understood, specifically their protein quality," he adds.

Dr Owino says there was unanimous resolve among symposium attendees that protein and its quality is central to human health, and the need for the new database is urgent. The development of a protein quality database will be jointly managed by FAO and the IAEA.

The symposium was co-organised by Massey University’s Riddet Institute, the FAO and Wageningen University, in cooperation with the IAEA.

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