Researchers at the Institute of Cellular Physiology (IFC) of the UNAM are making a protein with the right amount of essential amino acids so that older people and people with diseases that make it hard to digest proteins from natural foods can get the nutrition they need.
Researcher Gabriel del Río Guerra, who leads this group of experts, explained that for the technology developed so far, a patent was registered before the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property and the World Intellectual Property Organization.
The idea has caught the attention of a U.S. investment fund, which is helping them make tests and increase the size of their production so that they can sell it.
With his invention, they also seek to address other problems. In this regard, the researcher commented that the way in which we currently produce food does not guarantee that in the future we will have all the food required by the world's growing population. This production is not sustainable in the long term and has a significant impact on the environment.
Proof of this is that 92 percent of the planet's fresh water is used for agriculture and livestock, which contribute significantly to the generation of greenhouse gases, and only eight percent for our hygiene and hydration.
Protein-Rich Diets for Special Needs and Aging Population
Expert in biochemistry and structural biology estimated that 35 to 40 percent of the population does not benefit from current foods. And he gave an example: people with phenylketonuria, a genetic disease, can't process proteins from animals or plants because they contain the essential amino acid phenylalanine.
"Since they cannot degrade them, they begin to accumulate nitrogenous compounds in the body that intoxicate them." These people cannot consume the amounts of protein that a human requires and have nutritional and developmental problems. "It is estimated that between one and three percent of humans have diseases such as phenylketonuria," he said.
Another group is represented by those with chronic kidney diseases, a growing problem in Mexico and the United States due to the increase in overweight and obesity that lead to metabolic syndrome, cardiac alterations, and diabetes. In the United States, it is thought that about 15% of adults have one or more of these conditions.
This is in addition to the elderly or people over 65 years of age. After the age of 40, a normal physiological aging process begins, which implies the loss of function and muscle mass, known as sarcopenia, explained Del Río Guerra.
"Each decade after the age of 40, it is thought that about 8% of muscle mass or function is lost." In the United States, between five and 10 percent of people over the age of 65 need assistance to move—canes or some type of device—and among people over the age of 80, this increases to 50 percent.
"In Singapore, where they have a less protein-rich diet and are more vegetarian, 50 percent of 65-year-olds already require assistance to move around, which tells us that to prevent sarcopenia from setting in at an accelerated rate, exercise and a protein-rich diet are necessary," he added. But as we get older, we also lose our appetites, and the protein-rich foods that are available aren't enough for this age group.
"One can eat, for example, a cake with a lot of fat and carbohydrates and feel full, but if you eat half a kilo of beef steak, it can generate feelings of tachycardia, sweating, vomiting, and nausea; the body's reaction to an excess of proteins is much more critical," said the expert.
Currently, protein powder derived from cow's milk or peas is offered, which can solve part of the nutrition problem, but it is not enough and is produced under unsustainable processes. In addition, this powdered presentation is not very pleasant to the taste.
"Those who promote the consumption of protein powder are high-performance athletes or people who want to build muscle and are willing to suffer a little in that part of the taste to achieve the goal of building muscle mass," he said.
The protein developed by the UNAM scientists has the optimum proportion of essential amino acids, that is, those that are required to be consumed daily for the functioning of our body, and for this they used computational design. They also used what is known as "directed evolution" to identify a cell that produces more of the protein they designed.
In nature, he insisted, there is no plant or animal with these characteristics because they are not designed to feed us but to survive in the environment where they grow. "We have been using them because it is the way we learned early on to feed ourselves, but today, thanks to the understanding we have of nutrition, we can see that what we have been doing for thousands of years is not optimal."