A step toward further understanding plant-based product nutrition profiles

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Universities across Canada play a multi-faceted role in helping advance the country’s plant-based food, feed and ingredients sector. Whether it’s helping build skills in the youth that will take the sector into the future, to completing research related to new technologies and crop varieties, universities affect nearly every step of the value chain.

The research team at McMaster University’s Physical Activity Centre of Excellence (PACE) takes this responsibility to heart. Led by Dr. Stuart Phillips, Director of PACE, the centre recently signed onto a project led by Enhanced Medical Nutrition and Infinit Nutrition Canada to develop modular plant-based protein powders that will meet the needs of hospital patients, clinical setting patients and athletes.

In particular, his team is looking at how well the project’s plant-based protein supplements match up with the nutritional profile of whey protein supplements.

“They’ve got a blend of proteins, some coming from canola, for example,” Phillips said. “What they’re trying to do is to see how well it compares to the whey protein and if they can add certain amino acids, or one amino acid in particular, which is leucine, to make that protein blend a little bit better. I think there’s probably a good chance that they see that.”

The project work aligns well with PACE’s usual mandate. The centre looks at the interaction between physical activity and nutrition, with a particular focus on improving health, strength and the mitigation of muscle loss. This project, Phillips said, provided a prime opportunity to apply that work to plant-based proteins.

He added that there’s a need to expand industry and consumer understanding of how plant-based proteins can be used to meet consumer health and strength needs. Being able to help provide that understanding through this project is an outcome he’s excited to work toward.

“Sort of the common myth … is that plant-based proteins are inferior both from a digestibility and an amino acid content to animal-based proteins,” he said. “For a large part that’s probably true, but I do think the expanded knowledge of some of the plants from which we’re deriving these proteins yield a protein source that is surprisingly high in terms of its quality.”

While EMN and INC’s new plant-based protein supplements are still in development, Phillips said their testing at PACE has been showing promising outcomes, particularly in terms of taste. Getting there hasn’t come without its challenges, however.

“Emerging from covid rules about having the lab restricted and human participant testing restricted has been the biggest barrier we’ve had to overcome,” Phillips said. “It will be great to get the students back on campus, because they’re our main volunteer and worker pool.”

Despite those COVID-19-related setbacks, PACE is already seeing beneficial project outcomes outside of the testing results, including the addition of a new post-doctoral student to the team through the award of follow-up funding. Each of the students involved have also been able to build on their experience in the realm of health, nutrition and plant-based protein research, which will help expand their job opportunities after graduation while providing the plant-based food, feed and ingredients sector with more of the skills and talent it needs to thrive.

Accomplishing all of this while working with Canadian-based companies is a factor Phillips is particularly proud of. He and his team believe Canada’s plant-based food, feed and ingredients sector has the potential to grow and meet its significant goals, and he sees academic and research institutions playing a strong role in that growth.

“I think the important ingredients are an alignment of the project with my own scientific goals and understanding, which is certainly relevant with respect to plant-based proteins,” Phillips said. “Those alignments probably happen a lot more often than people think.”