That’s the view of leading nutrition academic, Prof Jeya Henry, the Deputy Executive Director at the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI).
Speaking at a recent seminar organised by the International Life Sciences Institute, South East Asia Region, he noted there had been a vast amount of investment in the plant-based and alternative protein space in recent years.
However, most of these are products are targeted at the most affluent sectors of society, and are often priced at the same level – if not higher – than traditional sources of protein.
Furthermore, there is also considerable debate over the justification for the seemingly relentless focus on protein, versus other food groups.
Prof Henry told delegates that irrespective of the country of origin, we consume a relatively constant protein-energy range in the region of 10 to 18%. In the UK it is 11%, while in Nepal it is 10.2%.
“If you consume adequate food – energy - you will broadly meet your protein requirements,” he added.
In relation to plant-based meats, he also cautioned that – as with any novel products – the long-term health implications of consumption were difficult to predict.
Prof Henry previously co-authored a commentary titled ‘The unknown impacts of plant-based meat alternatives on long-term health’.
“This was something a rhetorical question, because there is no way we can possibly know the answer yet,” he said, arguing that unlike vegetarianism and veganism, there was no long-term data from which to accurately draw conclusions.
What isn’t up for debate, however, is the scale of the public health challenge in South East and South Asia due to stunting caused by chronic malnutrition.
In Cambodia, Indonesia and Laos, the rates are 32, 34 and 42% respectively. The combined rate for South Asia is 35%, versus a global prevalence of 22%.
“Stunting is a pandemic in our region. It is staggering. We know that stunting has long-term health and metabolic consequences, including diminished cognition and physical development, and also poor productivity,” he said.
Tip the scale
It is also a vicious cycle, as stunted mothers are also much more likely to have low birth weight offspring.
However, there are opportunities to tip the scale.
Prof Henry pointed to a recent review, 'Animal source foods, rich in essential amino acids, are important for linear growth and development of young children in low- and middle-income countries', which concluded that “ensuring amino acid adequacy in diets, particularly through inclusion of nutrient-dense animal source foods from 6 to 23 months, is strongly encouraged in LMICs in order to compensate for less than optimal growth during complementary feeding.”
There is also scope to then intervene during the long period of growth up to puberty.
Prof Henry added: “The question I want to pose in relation to this, ‘is are we neglecting the elephant in the room?’, and that is the quality of the protein consumed through to puberty.”
He argued that focusing on alternative proteins “exclusively and alone” to fill a “protein gap”, would be an error, with a recent Singapore study showing that shifting from and animal-based to a plant based diet would have mixed results.
While the reduction in saturated fat and overall energy it uncovered is promising and may offer significant benefits to public health, decreases in protein intake may be of a concern to individuals with higher requirements and for linear growth. Furthermore, while levels of dietary iron and calcium were found to increase, the bioavailability is unknown.
Instead, he suggested that: “A neglected area in the alternative protein space, is how can we develop low cost high nutritive value foods to meet the needs of nearly 3 billion people at the base of the pyramid, particularly those living in South East Asia, Africa and Latin America.
“I would argue that the MNCs / SMEs that address the protein needs of 3 billion people at the bottom of the pyramid will gain both wealth and the provision of health to this neglected segment of our society.”