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Precision Protein: The key to a future-proof food system

June 18, 2020

Editor’s Note: Wageningen University & Research and UC Davis have joined forces with FoodShot Global’s collaborative investment platform that is working to catalyze innovation for a healthier, more sustainable, more equitable food system. Lisette de Jong interviewed two representatives from the institutions to hear what they think about FoodShot’s latest focus area: Precision Protein.

Find out more and apply or nominate here before July 15, 2020. FoodShot Global is an AgFunder Network Partner.

In order to provide sufficient nutrition for 10 billion people by 2050 while significantly reducing agricultural pollution and other profound impacts on planetary health, there is an urgent need to innovate across protein sectors – including livestock, aquaculture/fisheries, agricultural proteins, and novel proteins (algae, fungi, bacteria, insects, etc.). Two prominent academics from UC Davis and Wageningen agree that there is no time — either for the health of people or the planet — to be imprecise with our approach to protein, a macronutrient that is so resource-intensive and consequential to the environment.

Chronic undernutrition

An increasing number of countries have the ‘double burden’ of malnutrition, obesity, and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. “One in five of all children in the world suffers from impaired growth and development due to amino acid deficiencies”, says Stacey Pyett, program manager Protein for Life at Wageningen University & Research. “Especially in areas with an overabundance of cheap carbohydrates and low nutritious protein intake we see the coexistence of malnutrition and obesity.” Recently, the UN warned that the Covid-19 pandemic could double the number of people facing acute hunger, with a consequent rise in malnutrition.

Better understanding

Justin Siegel, UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food and Health

“If we want to make our food system more sustainable we need to better understand proteins”, adds Justin Siegel, faculty director of the Innovation Institute for Food and Health at UC Davis. “Proteins should make up at least 20% of our daily energy intake and every part of our body is dependent on them, from our muscles to our immune system.”

The vast majority of nutritional studies today have been focused on micronutrients. “We now have a good understanding at the molecular level of the effects of compounds like vitamin D and iron on processes in our body. But we have not achieved that level of understanding yet for macronutrients, such as protein, carbohydrates, and fat,” says Siegel. “Which is actually alarming, since less than 1% of our nutrient intake are micronutrients, whereas 99% are macronutrients.”

No silver bullet

In order to fully realize the power of protein for better human and planetary health, Siegel and Pyett have embraced FoodShot Global’s Precision Protein framework; it articulates coherently a set of scientific principles and projects that they have each pursued in their own work.

“We need to investigate the topic from different perspectives, from production and processing, to personalization with intake recommendations for different target groups”, Siegel explains. “We should move away from the idea that all proteins are the same.”

There is no silver bullet, no perfect protein source. “The preferred option depends on all kinds of factors: from where you live, to your age and health status, personal and cultural preferences”, he continues. The elderly, for example, need relatively high amounts of protein, but it is too easy and poor science to suggest that they should all just double their intake. “The elderly, and people with a chronic disease, often do not have much appetite, which makes it more difficult for them to get enough protein. Moreover, a high protein intake may cause complaints like bloating and flatulence because ‘older’ digestive systems do not break down and utilize proteins as efficiently.”

At UC Davis there are significant research programs focusing on how the human body interacts with proteins and how it utilizes them. “We want to understand precisely what properties they have and how they are broken down into their building blocks: peptides and amino acids”, says Siegel. “We also want to know how to make proteins more digestible and bioavailable in order to give targeted recommendations: to plant breeders, growers, manufacturers as well as consumers.”

Protein structure-function

“Without a better understanding of the composition of proteins in food, we will never be able to develop a precise understanding of the proteins we should be producing and consuming,” says Siegel.

An example of how understanding protein structure within common foods enables human health solutions is a recent project focused on celiac disease initiated by Siegel at UC Davis, with his colleagues at the University of Washington and PvP Biologics. Celiac disease, which affects 1% of the world population and can cause abdominal complaints such as pain and diarrhea, as well as nutrient deficiencies, has been heavily researched and demonstrates the important relationship between protein structure and health outcomes.

Based on knowledge about the specific structures within gluten proteins that trigger celiac disease, Siegel and his team developed an enzyme therapeutic that degrades those fragments. “This technology will prevent celiac patients from suffering the devastating symptoms of the disease when exposed to gluten,” Siegel illustrates.

Inspired by the celiac disease efforts, the Siegel lab at UC Davis has now developed a technology to increase the bioavailability of plant proteins, which is usually lower than that of animal proteins; an interesting development, considering the growing demand for sustainable, low-cost protein sources from countries with a rapidly expanding middle class. This technology is currently being commercialized by a UC Davis startup, Digestiva, Inc.  The proprietary technology will increase the nutritional benefit of a wide variety of available plant proteins, potentially reducing overall protein demand and increasing the spectrum of nutritious proteins consumed.

Stacey Pyett, Program Manager of Protein for Life at Wageningen University and Research

Protein bioavailabilty is also an important research topic at Wageningen University & Research “We know bioavailability is influenced by factors like product composition and processing, and we are beginning to believe by individual characteristics too,” says Pyett. “We recently learned that some individuals are probably better at digesting specific types of protein than others. Once we know why, we’ll know what directions to take in developing more-personalized protein-rich products.”

Protein sources

Wageningen also focuses on three other key protein issues in their research program: identifying new sources, efficient extraction, and improving the quality of plant-based products. “We look for protein sources that will fit into a circular agricultural system and we are optimizing processes to extract proteins from such sources,” says Pyett.

Most plants do not release their proteins easily; they are often wrapped in a tight matrix of fibers. “This keeps current extraction yields below fifty percent, meaning we are only able to fully valorize half of the protein we produce.”

Tasty products

Sustainable alternatives for meat are currently capturing only 1% of the market. “If we want consumers to reduce their intake of animal foods we should make the alternatives as least as good. Not only when it comes to sensory qualities like taste, bite, and juiciness, but also in terms of clean label and nutritional quality,” stresses Pyett. Many meat replacers on the market contain, for example, high levels of salt and additives.

In Pyett’s view, Precision Protein also requires consideration of geographic and nutritional variables. “Geographic precision will lead to efficient, resilient, local systems,” she says. “We need to be more specific about which crops can be produced where, in order to move away from our global over-dependence on soy, and the enormous deforestation and environmental damage it causes.” A country like the Netherlands, with arable land and ample water, could produce fava beans and water lentils, whereas a landlocked country might choose to focus on drought- and salt-water resistant crops.

“For regions of scarcity, geographic precision means increasing protein cultivation while maintaining soil and water quality,” Pyett stresses. An example of work done by Wageningen University & Research in this field is N2Africa, a project supporting 7,000 smallholder farmers, in 13 African countries, to shift towards cultivating legumes. Legumes attract atmospheric nitrogen into the crops and the soil through symbiosis with Rhizobium bacteria, and they are an important source of protein in a healthy diet. Another example is a project near Mexico City where nitrogen-rich wastewater from greenhouses is used to cultivate algae that, in turn, serve as feed for chickens producing eggs rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

One of the challenges in creating a truly sustainable food supply system is that soy is very, very cheap, says Pyett. “We must produce something cheaper than soy. Fermentation of biomass, for example, rice-bran and other grain side streams, might be a promising way forward. Cultivation of microorganisms is relatively easy and we already know how to do this on a large scale. Plus, consumers already understand that microbes can deliver appealing flavors, like they do in cheese, and provide health benefits.”

Unlocking new opportunities

Siegel hopes that within five years, scientists will know as much about macronutrients as about micronutrients. “We will develop a language for proteins, fats, and fibers. This will unlock new opportunities to produce these nutrients with precision and efficiency, and it will enable consumers, manufacturers, and breeders to make better-informed decisions about what is healthy for human beings and for the planet. There is great potential in precision proteins and we have the will, the tools, and the technologies to achieve it.” 

Integrated platform

FoodShot Global’s Precision Protein FoodShot aims to do exactly that. The organization’s global consortium of world-class, mission-aligned venture funds, banks, corporations, universities, NGOs, and foundations offers an

integrated platform of equity, debt, blended finance, and non-dilutive capital to support businesses, researchers, social entrepreneurs, and advocacy organizations. Through the FoodShot GroundBreaker Prizes and Equity Awards, innovators have access to investment capital and prize dollars as well as guidance and capacity-building resources for maximum impact and scale.

With the Precision Protein framework it has developed, FoodShot Global is seeking innovations across protein science, production, processing, and personalization. These advances will build a precision protein system that is more precisely attuned to human and planetary health, better aligns global and regional supply and demand, increases accessibility, and decreases waste and environmental damage. Applications for equity funding and nominations for prize funding are due July 15, 2020. Go to for details.

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