Trend watch: Leveraging protein

Is inadequate protein intake the cause of globesity? This is an essential premise behind the concept of protein leveraging, one that offers interesting potential for the food industry.….

In its new “Talking Points” report, RaboResearch, Rabobank’s food and agribusiness division, highlights three questions the food industry should ask about protein leveraging and its importance in regulating the diet.

The idea of protein leverage, that our daily hunt for protein drives our overall eating patterns, has been circulating within nutrition science for some time but has yet to transition over into the food world.

The need for protein governs the overall eating patterns of humans and has an “outsized impact” on the number of calories we eat. According to consumer foods senior analyst Nicholas Fereday, who compiled the report, protein leverage suggests a plausible explanation for the impact of highly processed foods on health.

Protein leveraging was conceptualised in 2005 by entomologists David Rabuenheimer and Stephen Simpson while trying to discover how living things know what to eat. They found that the average proportion of calories from protein in the US gradually decreased from 14% in 1961 to 12.5% in 2000 — calories from fats and carbohydrates made up the difference.

Of particular relevance to the food industry is their heretical point that when it comes to explaining the dietary causes behind the rise in obesity, we may have possibly drawn the wrong conclusions.

By focusing too much on the rising consumption of fat and carbs, we have largely ignored the potential contributory role of protein in causing weight gain. And to take it a step further, to what extent does the way we regulate our consumption of protein help to explain why obesity rates have risen around the world?

Their research indicates that US citizens could only maintain their target protein consumption to increase total calorie intake, creating an energy surplus and subsequent weight gain. They posited that by overly focusing on the rise in consumption of fats and carbohydrates, the food industry had ignored the “potential contributory role of protein in causing weight gain.”

Another pressing concern is the extent to which the way we regulate protein consumption explains the high rates of obesity. They have refined their research to consider the implications and opportunities for the food industry.

The foundational premise of “protein leveraging” is that our strong regulation of protein drives the amount of food we eat, depending on the protein level in the diet. People eat food until their daily protein requirement is met, regardless of the number of calories consumed or total energy intake.

“If consumers buy into the protein leverage concept, it could provide food companies with an answer to criticism around ultra-processed foods. If companies recognise that consumers want to prioritize protein in the future, they can work to reformulate their recipes and increase the amount of protein in their products,” the report states.

In this note, Fereday explains protein leverage and proposes three questions the food industry needs to start considering, in the expectation that the concept will gain wider recognition over time by consumers.