When it comes to protein sources, most consumers assume that while plant protein offers health* and environmental benefits, animal protein yields better nutritional benefits.
But how much might change if science could show otherwise?
In late 2021, that’s just what happened. A Roquette-sponsored study published in a science journal in October measured the digestibility of pea protein using the Food and Agriculture Organization’s newest recommended standard, DIASS. The study implemented the FAO’s most highly recommended methodology, gathering its digestion data from human subjects.
“As far as we know, this was the first time pea protein has been tested using DIASS in humans according to this methodology,” says Laetitia Guérin-Deremaux, Head of Nutrition and Health R&D at Roquette. Working with human subjects on digestions studies isn’t easy, so it’s seldom done.
But the results were revolutionary.
“Pea protein has a DIASS value of 100%,” says Anne-Sophie Vercruysse, Global Market Manager at Roquette. “That means it’s an excellent quality plant protein – as good as dairy protein, I would say.”
Knowing pea protein isn’t a nutritional compromise could change the way consumers view it. And in a future where diverse diets are increasingly the goal, that could make all the difference.
Hitting the 50/50 target
Protein is a macronutrient. It may be comprised of many different types of amino acid – and since humans need a lot of protein, the best practice is to vary the kinds of amino acids present when we eat.
That’s why savvy consumers know that eating many different types of protein is the best way to stay healthy. Including a mix of animal and plant proteins in diets is one way to do this.
“One recommendation is to consume about half of the protein in your diet from plants and half from animals,” Vercruysse says. But there’s a problem: While the environmental cost of plant-based proteins is much lower than that of animal-based proteins, the nutritional value of plant-based proteins is sometimes lower too. Many consumers worry that by including more plant-based proteins in their diet, they won’t get all the amino acids their bodies require.
In Europe, consumers get only 42% of their protein from plant products. North Americans have even less variety, only getting 37% of their protein needs from plants.
To ask consumers to embrace variety would first require demonstrating that some plant proteins, at least, could offer everything their bodies needed. That’s what Roquette’s partners set out to do.
A new standard for a changing world
Getting a measurement that would have value in the future required first embracing the FAO’s newest measure of protein quality: the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score, or DIASS.
The FAO began recommending DIASS in 2013 as an eventual replacement for its previous standard, PDCASS (Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score). DIASS measures require a more accurate sampling method and offer a broader range of possible scores. But that accuracy comes with some challenges.
“DIASS is a more representative measure of what happens in your body,” Vercruysse says. DIASS measurements are taken at the ileum, the final segment of the small intestine, to see how well the amino acids present in a given protein have been digested. Ideally, those measurements are taken in a human subject.
That’s the method the Roquette-sponsored study used. And its results were surprising, even to those in the industry: Pea protein processed according to the NUTRALYS® method returned a DIASS of 100%, rated as “excellent” protein quality.
“When DIASS is 100%, it means your protein is able to meet all of the body’s nutritional requirements,” Vercruysse says. “Not every plant protein has results as good as this. But we now know that consumers can enjoy NUTRALYS® pea protein with no nutritional compromise.”
Getting the message to consumers
Of course, markets don’t change overnight. New standards take time to reach full adoption. And that’s certainly the case with DIASS and pea protein, too.
“Today, most of our customers still rely on PDCASS,” Vercruysse says. “It will take time, probably years, for everyone to adopt the DIASS standard. The method we used to measure it is very complex, and many are waiting for a lighter methodology to make DIASS more common.”
That means for today, many local regulations continue to be based on PDCASS rather than DIASS. And for today, consumers remain more likely to enquire about PDCASS than about DIASS.
But DIASS will likely be the standard of tomorrow. And that means Roquette customers already have confidence in how their products will measure up.
“We’ve opened the door,” Vercruysse says. “We’ve already demonstrated that in terms of health benefits, pea protein can be as good as whey protein. Now we’ve been able to demonstrate that pea protein is comparable to dairy in terms of digestibility too. Pea protein has nothing to be ashamed of.”
The study measuring DIASS for pea protein processed according to the NUTRALYS® process was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in October 2021.
*NUTRALYS® health benefits are supported by one single clinical study. Food manufacturers who would like to use NUTRALYS® pea protein for these benefits will have to run its own studies based on its own formulation.
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