Modernize the Definition of Protein Quality
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We call upon the Commissioner of the FDA and the US Secretary of Agriculture to commission a working group of the National Academy of Medicine to modernize the formal definition of protein quality to one that better serves both public, and planetary health.
The current definition of protein quality, based solely on the concentration and digestibility of amino acids is outdated- designed for a population struggling to get sufficient protein.
That is not the case in the United States, or much of the developed world, where average protein intake often exceeds requirements and recommendations (Pasiakos et al.), and where even diets composed exclusively from plant foods readily provide ample amounts of all essential amino acids (Gardner et al).
Since the word "quality" denotes something desirable, and preferable, its application to protein should lead people to foods that can enhance the quality of their health. Ideally, it should also lead to foods with a favorable environmental footprint, that can be produced sustainably.
In both cases, the current definition of protein quality, and its implications for both popular culture and policy making, lead in the opposite direction- toward higher intake of meat products associated with poorer health outcomes and greater environmental harm.
Importantly, the current definition of protein quality also leads the public away from the specific recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a conflict within federal nutrition guidance itself (2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans). The current definition of protein quality also conflicts with the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, which emphasizes more sustainable eating patterns (2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report).
In a paper recently published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Advances in Nutrition, and authored by scientists working on behalf of the True Health Initiative, the case is made for basing a modernized definition of protein quality not only on the protein in a food, but on the overall nutritional (and environmental) properties of the food (Katz et al).
This paper illustrates how a metric could readily be developed to reflect the quality and concentration of protein, and also the healthfulness of the food delivering that protein.
A related Citizen's Petition, currently under review at the FDA, calls for an updated framework for nutrient content claims, which would allow a food product to carry a nutrient content claim, only if that product contains a meaningful amount of at least one health-promoting food, as recommended by the 2015 DGAs.
Protein food selection at the population level plays a prominent role in the prevailing burden of chronic diseases, and in environmental degradation from climate to aquifers, to biodiversity (Symonds et al).
We accordingly call upon the federal authorities to act with a sense of urgency - and bring the definition of protein quality into alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and up to date with the public and planetary health imperatives of our time.
Pasiakos, S., Agarwal, S., Lieberman, H., & Fulgoni, V. (2015). Sources and Amounts of Animal, Dairy, and Plant Protein Intake of US Adults in 2007–2010. Nutrients,7(8), 7058-7069. doi:10.3390/nu7085322
Gardner CD, Hartle JC, Garrett RD, Offringa LC, Wasserman AS. Maximizing the intersection of human health and the health of the environment with regard to the amount and type of protein produced and consumed in the United States. Nutr Rev 2019, 77 (4): 197–215.
(n.d.). Retrieved from https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/
Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report
Katz, D. L., Doughty, K. N., Geagan, K., Jenkins, D. A., & Gardner, C. D. (2019). Perspective: The Public Health Case for Modernizing the Definition of Protein Quality. Advances in Nutrition. doi:10.1093/advances/nmz023
Symonds, M. (2019). Prime recommendation of Food in the Anthropocene: The EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems.- Post-publication Peer Review of the Biomedical Literature. doi:10.3410/f.734866501.793555670
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