Although many food products are touted as high in protein, the quality of the protein may not be optimal. During session 022, “Protein Quality and Nutritional Assessment: Global and Sustainable Perspectives,” speakers discussed how protein quality and protein content are raising issues in the food and nutrition industries.
Kathy Musa-Veloso of Intertek said that protein quality is determined by three factors: whether the protein contains all nine essential amino acids, whether the levels of the essential amino acids are sufficient, and whether the protein is digestible. Meat contains all nine essential amino acids, but most plant foods do not; consequently, most plant-based protein products do not qualify for nutrient-content claims for protein. On the nutrition labels of food products, there are two ways to state protein content: crude protein content and percent Daily Value (% DV).
David Plank of Medallion Labs explained that determining the level of crude protein in a food is fairly simple (i.e., measuring the level of nitrogen), but determining the % DV of protein is a much more complicated process. Calculating the % DV of protein requires figuring out the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS), which involves performing an amino-acid analysis and determining the digestibility of the protein in rat models. This makes determining % DV of protein in a food product a costly venture. Plank said that Medallion Labs has developed a methodology—the ASAP Quality Score—for determining the % DV that is cheaper and does not involve testing on animals. (ASAP Quality Score kits were launched in March 2018, but the kits are still in stages of regulatory approval.)
To make a nutrient content claim for protein, the % DV must be at least 10%. However, the Nutrition Facts panels of many products contain misleading protein claims. George Salmas of The Food Lawyers said that all U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforcement actions and class-action lawsuits for protein are based on incorrect protein claims on food labels. He pointed out that the manufacturer of Snickers Protein Bars is in class-action litigation right now for overstating protein content. According to Salmas, all problems with protein content claims start inside the company with the following excuses: 1) Our regulatory people said it was okay, 2) We’ve always done it this way, and 3) We copied the big companies because we figured they knew what they were doing.
Receiving an FDA warning letter is grounds for a class-action lawsuit, and in protein-related cases, warning letters are usually issued because the protein content is overstated. Salmas said that manufacturers should know what’s in their product. “Don’t necessarily trust the supplier’s selling specification sheet or certificate of analysis,” he said, which means manufacturers should conduct their own laboratory testing before making protein-content claims. Food-labeling class actions can be based on a misleading statement on the product label or the product’s website. “Have your website scrubbed by someone who knows the law,” Salmas said.
Salmas concluded by telling the audience that plaintiffs’ class-action attorneys are very clever at finding ways to sue. “Have [law] professionals watch what’s on your labels and what’s on your website,” he said. “Protect yourself at all times.”