An overlooked source of sustainable protein for health

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Grain foods already play a major role in the diet of most countries around the world, as the main dietary source of energy, carbohydrates, dietary fiber and vegetable protein. However, currently, less than half of the grain is used for human consumption. Nordic researchers concluded in a joint review published in the journal Nordic that changes in cereal consumption and new food innovations rich in cereal protein could play a key role in the transition towards a more sustainable diet for healthy diets. Nutrition Reviews.

“Both scientists and the public seem to have missed the hitherto untapped potential that cereals can contribute to a more sustainable diet and a healthier population. Even small changes in dietary patterns can make a huge difference to both the environment and health and cereals can be one of the These possibilities,” says Professor Rijkard Landberg of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

Food production is responsible for 26 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing the use of plant foods to replace animal foods such as meat and dairy products is one strategy to achieve sustainability goals. This includes improving human health, particularly in the Western world.

A joint consortium of researchers in the fields of food, nutrition, environment and medicine from Nordic universities and institutes has developed a possible scenario for reducing meat intake in Europe and replacing it with more sustainable and healthier whole grain-based foods. What foods should be used and what are the nutritional consequences and environmental implications?

“In our scenario, if 20 percent of the daily European animal protein intake was replaced by plant protein, 50 percent could come from grains. This would mean less than 6 grams of grain protein per day, which equates to a 60-gram serving of grains,” says Senior Consultant Kaisa Poutanen, VTT Technical Research Center in Finland. Current grain protein intake should be increased by 19 percent. With an average content of 10 percent of protein in grains, this would mean an additional need for 15 million tons of grain, which is equivalent to 5 percent of the current European grain production.

“Because only a third of current grain production is used for human consumption, there is potential for a shift from animal feed production to human consumption if consumers accept it. This shift would correspond to an increase in consumption of about 60 grams per day—say, three slices of rye bread made of whole grains or a good portion of oatmeal,” says Anna Karlund, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Eastern Finland.

Whole grains are considered beneficial for health and a consistently high intake has been associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and colorectal cancer in observational studies. Whole grains are rich in dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds, but grain protein contains small amounts of the essential amino acid lysine. Therefore, the nutritional composition of the overall diet should be highlighted to ensure optimal amino acid intake. This can easily be done by increasing the intake of legumes to supplement grain protein.

Furthermore, the strong future focus from the industry on processing and product design will benefit both society and industry.

Increased availability and use of new protein-rich grain food concepts, including dairy and meat analogues with balanced nutrition profiles, along with a shift toward more traditional grain foods from whole grains, could aid the transition toward a healthier, more sustainable diet.


Increased consumption of whole grains can significantly reduce the economic impact of type 2 diabetes


more information:
Kaisa S Poutanen et al, Cereals – a major source of protein sustainable for health, Nutrition Reviews (2021). DOI: 10.1093/nutrit/nuab084

Presented by the University of Eastern Finland

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