Protein quality as a complementary functional unit in life cycle assessment (LCA)

A - Papers appearing in refereed journals

McAuliffe, G., Takahashi, T., Beal, T., Huppertz, T., Leroy, F., Buttriss, J., Collins, A. L., Drewnowski, A., McLaren, S. J., Ortenzi, F., Van der Pols, J., Van Vliet, S. and Lee, M. R. F. 2022. Protein quality as a complementary functional unit in life cycle assessment (LCA). International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-022-02123-z

AuthorsMcAuliffe, G., Takahashi, T., Beal, T., Huppertz, T., Leroy, F., Buttriss, J., Collins, A. L., Drewnowski, A., McLaren, S. J., Ortenzi, F., Van der Pols, J., Van Vliet, S. and Lee, M. R. F.
Abstract

Goal and theoretical commentary

A number of recent life cycle assessment (LCA) studies have concluded that animal-sourced foods should be restricted—or even avoided—within the human diet due to their relatively high environmental impacts (particularly those from ruminants) compared with other protein-rich foods (mainly protein-rich plant foods). From a nutritional point of view, however, issues such as broad nutrient bioavailability, amino acid balances, digestibility and even non-protein nutrient density (e.g., micronutrients) need to be accounted for before making such recommendations to the global population. This is especially important given the contribution of animal sourced foods to nutrient adequacy in the global South and vulnerable populations of high-income countries (e.g., children, women of reproductive age and elderly). Often, however, LCAs simplify this reality by using ‘protein’ as a functional unit in their models and basing their analyses on generic nutritional requirements. Even if a ‘nutritional functional unit’ (nFU) is utilised, it is unlikely to consider the complexities of amino acid composition and subsequent protein accretion. The discussion herein focuses on nutritional LCA (nLCA), particularly on the usefulness of nFUs such as ‘protein,’ and whether protein quality should be considered when adopting the nutrient as an (n)FU. Further, a novel and informative case study is provided to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of protein-quality adjustment.

Case study methods

To complement current discussions, we present an exploratory virtual experiment to determine how Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Scores (DIAAS) might play a role in nLCA development by correcting for amino acid quality and digestibility. DIAAS is a scoring mechanism which considers the limiting indispensable amino acids (IAAs) within an IAA balance of a given food (or meal) and provides a percentage contribution relative to recommended daily intakes for IAA and subsequent protein anabolism; for clarity, we focus only on single food items (4 × animal-based products and 4 × plant-based products) in the current case exemplar. Further, we take beef as a sensitivity analysis example (which we particularly recommend when considering IAA complementarity at the meal-level) to elucidate how various cuts of the same intermediary product could affect the interpretation of nLCA results of the end-product(s).

Recommendations

First, we provide a list of suggestions which are intended to (a) assist with deciding whether protein-quality correction is necessary for a specific research question and (b) acknowledge additional uncertainties by providing mitigating opportunities to avoid misinterpretation (or worse, dis-interpretation) of protein-focused nLCA studies. We conclude that as relevant (primary) data availability from supply chain ‘gatekeepers’ (e.g., international agri-food distributors and processors) becomes more prevalent, detailed consideration of IAA provision of contrasting protein sources needs to be acknowledged—ideally quantitatively with DIAAS being one example—in nLCA studies utilising protein as a nFU. We also contend that future nLCA studies should discuss the complementarity of amino acid balances at the meal-level, as a minimum, rather than the product level when assessing protein metabolic responses of consumers. Additionally, a broader set of nutrients should ideally be included when evaluating “protein-rich foods” which provide nutrients that extend beyond amino acids, which is of particular importance when exploring dietary-level nLCA.

Year of Publication2022
JournalInternational Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-022-02123-z
Web address (URL)https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11367-022-02123-z#article-info
Open accessPublished as ‘gold’ (paid) open access
FunderBiotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
Funder project or codeS2N - Soil to Nutrition - Work package 2 (WP2) - Adaptive management systems for improved efficiency and nutritional quality
S2N - Soil to Nutrition - Work package 3 (WP3) - Sustainable intensification - optimisation at multiple scales
Publisher's version
Copyright license
CC BY 4.0
Supplemental file
Output statusPublished
Publication dates
Online28 Dec 2022
Publication process dates
Accepted29 Nov 2022
PublisherSpringer Heidelberg
ISSN0948-3349

Permalink - https://repository.rothamsted.ac.uk/item/98v04/protein-quality-as-a-complementary-functional-unit-in-life-cycle-assessment-lca

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