Precision Protein Food Systems

The Periodic Table of Food Initiative will spark innovation across protein sectors so that diets from affordable, sustainable sources are personalized towards individual need and planetary health.

What is the Problem and Why Does it Matter?

Proteins are fundamental to the structure and function of every cell in the body, which makes them vital for growth, repair and good health. They are comprised of chains of peptides, which in turn are built from combinations of smaller building blocks called amino acids. There are twenty amino acids in total, with nine being “essential” because our bodies cannot make them, instead they must be obtained through our diet. The growing global population means there are some critical challenges to providing equitable access to a nutritionally sufficient amount of quality protein: 

  • Source of protein: Animal products provide the full range of essential amino acids needed by the body, however, they may not be readily available or the best option for overall health e.g. red and processed meat (NIH, 2012). Cultural and personal preferences can also drive individuals to seek plant-based proteins, and while some plants can be good sources, many processed plant-based foods offer limited nutritional benefits (Trends Food Sci. Technol., 2017; Nutrients, 2019). 
  • Sustainable Protein: The environmental impact of meat production is often argued as a reason for alternative protein solutions, but it is not that simple. Meat farmed sustainably can have less of an environmental impact than some vegetarian foods and cultured (lab-grown) meat (Am. J. Clin. Nutr., 2003Frontiers, 2019).  Trends towards plant protein sources can bring negative impacts, for example, increased demand for quinoa has raised a series of environmental and socio-economic challenges, such as reduced biodiversity, demand for land and local affordability (Foods, 2020). In addition, many modern farming methods degrade our soils and negatively impact critical environmental systems (IUCN, 2015).

Precision protein systems can offer a solution to the growing global protein demand, by catering for an individual’s exact requirement from a range of affordable, sustainable sources. However, this requires a much deeper understanding of the composition of our foods and the complex interactions that dietary proteins, peptides and amino acids have with our bodies. The Periodic Table of Food Initiative will enable a movement towards a precision protein system by providing the robust data needed to guide the production of animal- and plant-protein for maximum benefit to human health, with minimal resources, waste and environmental damage.

“Our comprehension of the structures and functions of proteins is rudimentary. This knowledge deficit, not just about proteins, but other macronutrients such as fats and carbohydrates, hinders our efforts to understand and address the dietary needs of the growing global population in a meaningful and sustainable way,” says Justin Siegel, Faculty Director of the Innovation Institute for Food and Health, whose work with proteins focuses on using computational and experimental tools to further our knowledge, with the aim of enabling sustainable nutritional food systems for all.

“There is no perfect protein source because individual needs vary; it can depend on where you live, age, health, intolerances such as celiac disease, as well as cultural and personal preferences. We also need to consider the wider factors, such as the environmental and economic impacts, as well as the level of input needed to produce the protein, as it can be resource intensive.”

Precision protein systems that consider specific regional, local, and individual needs, as well as the supply from a range of sustainable sources, could be the solution. FoodShot Global brings together a collaborative group of investors, industry leaders, innovators, and advocates to catalyze investment in food systems that are more precisely attuned to human and planetary health. The Executive Director, Sara Eckhouse, believes innovating across protein sectors – livestock, aquaculture and fisheries, plant-based and novel proteins (algae, fungi, bacteria, insects, etc.) – will be key, however, caution is needed.

“Before moving towards alternative sources of protein, we should understand what that means for our health,” Eckhouse explains. “Some proteins are only found in meat or are not as readily available in plant-based foods. Meat alternatives focus on flavor and texture, and often do not consider the detailed nutritional composition further than ‘protein’. We need better information about the composition of our foods and how they impact our health to determine an effective way forward.”

Proposed Solution: A Periodic Table of Food

While food labels suggest otherwise, protein is not just protein, but the sum of its constituent parts. Protein production is resource intensive, so efforts should be targeted towards matching specific protein composition to need. Meat, animal products, and many plants are all good sources of protein, but we currently lack the sophisticated knowledge of their exact composition to make targeted recommendations around production, processing, and consumption. In addition, the methods used to measure these components vary, reducing the reliability and comparability of data.

The Periodic Table of Food Initiative is a global effort to greatly expand our understanding of the biochemical composition of our food, to include protein and its derivative parts. The initiative will create standardized kits and methods to allow researchers to categorize the thousands of compounds in our foods, culminating in a public database that can be mined for information to guide protein production and processing from sustainable sources for maximum nutritional benefit.

What is the Potential Impact?

Health and Nutrition:

  • Advancing knowledge. A deep comprehension of the proteins in our food will enable research to describe the efficiency and variability of their digestion, and further, how they impact our growth, health and development. Where deficiencies or intolerances are highlighted, interventions can be developed. For example, an enzyme therapeutic for celiac disease, amongst other gluten-targeted approaches (Trends Food Sci. Technol., 2018)
  • Addressing malnutrition and diet-related diseases. Dietary guidelines that maximize the precise and efficient consumption of protein for optimal health can be designed when we have access to detailed food composition data.

Sustainability:

  • Developing new sustainable protein sources. The protein composition of existing foods can be matched to equally nutritious and attractive food products from sustainable sources.
  • Diversifying agriculture. Profiling the protein composition of alternative plant sources will drive demand for a wider variety of crops, bringing associated environmental benefits related to soil health and biodiversity.
  • Finding new ways of farming. Scientists in Mexico are growing algae in the residual water from vegetable greenhouses, which in turn feed chickens that produce nutritionally-rich eggs. Such innovative protein production systems will be facilitated when the biochemical composition of foods is readily available or easy to characterize.
  • Maximizing protein value. Some plants do not release their proteins easily. The Periodic Table of Food Initiative can highlight these specific plants so that methods of extraction can be developed that maximize the protein value and the full nutritional benefit.
  • Promoting regional food systems. Crops that are highlighted for specific protein content of need (e.g. to augment traditional and cultural diets) can be matched to regions where they will thrive, thereby creating sustainable, efficient, resilient, and local food systems.

Economic Opportunities:

  • Increasing efficiency. With an increased understanding of the detailed composition of protein in foods, new production and processing methods can increase precision and efficiency, thereby reducing costs.
  • Creating innovative products. New foods can be designed to retain and incorporate specific proteins, while also being attractive to the consumer. For example, alternative meat products that not only match the consistency and flavor but also the nutritional benefits.
  • Promoting livelihood opportunities. As more sources of protein are profiled, promoted, and given value, farmers will have more choices (other than the current main staple crops and livestock) of what to grow in their fields.

Eckhouse believes a nuanced view on protein is important. “No one answer fits all, in fact, one solution is not a good approach. We should consider geographical and cultural needs, and food’s role in the economy in terms of building wealth and financial security – often livestock plays a big role in that. From an environmental perspective, there is the biodiversity question; are we replacing one problem with another? At the individual level, there are varying needs and differing responses to proteins. The provision of quality nutrition from sustainable food systems needs to consider all these factors to find many solutions that can be applied at the regional, local and individual level.”