Tuesday, June 12, 2012: 11:50:20 PM

Food Processing Guest Column

Relevance of new protein targets - Dr V H Potty, Diversified Food Technologies (India)

Proteins form an integral part of a balanced diet yet there remains an ambiguity about the recommended minimum intake levels

Protein is a food component that is essential for body growth and maintenance. After water, protein is the most abundant molecules in the body. They are also the major structural component of all living cells. If adequate intake through everyday food is not ensured, many deficiency symptoms are manifested and therefore minimum daily intake has to be arrived at to prevent such contingencies. Usually terms like Dietary Reference Value (DRV) and Population Reference Intake (PRI) are used by nutritional experts to indicate the levels of protein that need to be consumed daily for different segments of the population. Protein requirements vary from people to people and they depend on variable factors such as age, gender, level of physical activity and the like. Each country arrives at these values in consonance with international standards. While children and adolescents in general require more proteins, adults and grown-ups need lesser proteins for keeping good health. As protein is an integral part of growth phase, its need for growing children is naturally higher as expressed in terms of unit body weight.

Deficiency issue
Deficiency of proteins was a burning issue during 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and most populations in countries in the African, Asian and South American continents were identified as targets requiring massive need for protein foods of good quality. Many government nutritional programs were launched to evolve low cost protein-rich foods for distribution in these protein-stressed countries and reduce or prevent malnutrition-precipitated diseases like Kwashiorkar and Marasmus. It was later realised that protein deficiency alone could not be blamed for the poor health conditions of people here and energy deficiency also contributed its part in depriving the people of normal healthy life. Ultimately it is the economic conditions that prevail in these countries which are responsible for denying the economically weak population access to good food, balance in terms of calories and proteins, as well as micro nutrients. In all nutrition interventional programs, it is important to set up a benchmark for assessing the status of the target population vis-à-vis protein adequacy in the diet. It is here that DRV and PRI become highly relevant. If DRV figures are low, it is necessary to segregate that segment of the population who are not able to afford intake of proteins to the average figures. Efforts must therefore follow to ensure proteins as per DRV are supplied under nutritional programs.
There has never been unanimity among nutritional pundits regarding the minimum protein intake that is necessary for good health. As a thumb rule, 25% of energy intake can be accounted for by the proteins present in the diet. But each country tries to come up with its own daily intake values for various nutrients, though international agencies like WHO and FAO have well established nutritional guidelines. Why it is necessary to evolve separate standards for each country is still not clear and what is the problem in following these guidelines arrived through extensive inter-country consultations is not very obvious. Americans and Canadians preach to consume 46 gm of proteins daily by the women in the age range 17-70 while the corresponding figure for men is 56 gm. Furthermore, an average figure of 0.85 gm per kg body weight is followed as a general rule. Protein intake can be as high as 125 gm per day for very active people like athletes and heavy duty workers. Health food industry promotes a diet rich in protein, low in fat and medium levels of carbohydrates (about 50%of calorie intake).
Recent efforts by the European Food Safety Authority to set out minimum protein targets required for good health are somewhat puzzling. According to its latest recommendations an average adult needs about 0.83 gm of proteins daily, which works out to about 58 gm for a person with 70 kg body weight. Except for a minor change, these figures are practically same as that existed before and why this exercise was needed is intriguing. After all, in most countries in Europe where meat based diets predominate, even a small portion of chicken, about 75 gm in weight provides about 30 gm of proteins, more than 50% of the daily need and protein deficiency is a non-issue. Obviously these values have been revisited for guidance to the industry for arriving at figures for inclusion in the nutrition information in the front of the label packaging. Where the new guidelines are more illuminating is the attempt to put down DRV figures for infants, children, adolescents, pregnant women and breast feeding women separately, which probably makes some sense. Additional intake of proteins to the extent of 1 to 28 gm per day during different stages of pregnancy as being suggested is indeed welcome. Recommendation for increased protein intake to the extent of 19 gm a day for breast feeding women for the first 6 months and 13 gm thereafter is also very eminent.
Dr V H Potty is a renowned food technologist and the chairman of Diversified Food Technologies (India), Mysore

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