High protein offerings showing up in the cereal, dairy and baked goods aisles advertising “excellent” and “good source of” type claims and protein-based powdered dietary supplement products are proliferating at a rapid pace. But not all of those products might be exactly what they are cracked up to be, according to Evelyn Cadman, a Denver-based consultant and principal in the firm BioScience Translation & Application.
“Protein is the most valuable nutrient,” Cadman told NutraIngredients-USA. Interest in this ingredient has driven remarkable innovation in the sector, with alternative forms of protein proliferating in the market.
While beans as a high protein vegetarian source have been part of the Western diet for centuries and Japan and China for even longer than that, it is only fairly recently that ingredient manufacturers have started to extract these proteins from their parent materials, starting with soy. That trend has now spread to pea, lentil and rice proteins and even to sources like hemp.
Casein as benchmark
When comparing different proteins, FDA uses casein and egg whites as the benchmarks as being the most complete protein, providing all of the nine essential amino acids. Other proteins are measured against that benchmark when determining their quality. When testing for and expressing the content of protein, manufacturers are allowed to list the grams of protein in the ingredient deck, and a percentage of the daily value as well.
Therein lies the rub. Manufacturers are supposed to perform a calculation to correct for the quality of a protein relative to casein when quoting a percentage of the daily value delivered. For example, if the product delivers 25g of protein, or nominally 50% of the daily value, that percentage should probably be reported as somewhat less if it is a protein other than whey, casein, egg white or soy, which are all more or less equivalent in FDA’s eyes.
Cadman said many manufacturers are not doing this, which could mean over reporting of protein percentages on labels.
“I think it is mostly a matter of ignorance and not willful deception by industry. Many companies do not have someone on staff that knows the FDA labeling regulations in great detail and many are not even aware of the requirements when it comes to protein products,” Cadman said.
“Frankly, many manufacturers that contact my company for labeling help have based their labels on what they see on store shelves. I frequently comment that trying to learn labeling regulations by looking at labels in the stores is like trying to learn how to drive by watching traffic. There are a lot of creative drivers out there that never knew, forgot or don’t care about speed limits and other rules. Unfortunately, the same is true for dietary supplement, food and cosmetic product labels,” she said.
In order to determine what the correct percentage of daily value to claim on labels for a given protein, a calculation is performed using one of two baseline protein measures. One is the PDCAAS (protein digestibility corrected amino acid score) with the other being the either the PER (protein efficiency ratio).
The PDCAAS uses either casein or egg whites as its protein baseline, whereas the PER relies on casein. After determining where a given protein stands on these scores, a correction factor is applied to the DV percentage.
Missing calculations on back burner
Cadman said the feedback she has gotten from FDA is that while failing to perform this type of calculation is a technical label violation, it is not a front burner item for FDA. The agency has bigger fish to fry in terms of doing GMP inspections, looking for products tainted with undeclared pharmaceutical ingredients, implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act and so forth.
Nevertheless, failure to do this type of protein calculation has been mentioned in at least one warning letter in recent years. In this case, FDA was already inspecting the facility, and it is during such inspections that label deficiencies most often come to light.
The idea of relative protein quality is one that has not gotten much press in recent years, Cadman said, but it is still an important nutritional consideration. At the beginning of the vegetarianism movement in the United States, an influential book called Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappe included a detailed instruction on protein combinations to fill in the amino acid gaps that characterize most plant proteins.
Traditional cuisines take in this into account as a matter of course: Beans combined with corn in the form of tortillas in Latin American countries or soy combined with rice in Asian cuisines. Having a corrected daily value would at least provide consumers with valuable information in planning their protein intakes, Cadman said.
“Some protein sources ore only 40% to 60% efficient when compared to casein. It’s not like you are getting no value but you are not getting the value you though you were,” she said.