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Protein 4 Life

Research into the importance of protein and why many older people don’t have enough of it in their diet is providing plenty of food for thought for the companies that make the products we eat and drink.

Protein4Life, a collaborative research project led by Newcastle University, examines the drivers and barriers to increased protein consumption from the age of 40 through to middle age and in later life beyond the age of 70.

Protein is the focus of the research because a good protein intake is required to minimise the loss of muscle mass and strength – a natural symptom of ageing. This in turn reduces the risk of frailty and weakened resistance to disease and infection, which has a direct healthcare cost in the UK’s over-70s of £2.5 billion a year.

Industry partners

Seven companies from the food and drink industry – Campden BRI, Nestlé, Mondelez International, Sainsbury’s, Pladis, Bradgate Bakery and Premier Foods – contributed to the research. They provided expertise around the technical challenges of adding more protein to products, and feedback from their market research into customers’ attitudes towards protein.

Kerry Whiteside, Innovation Project Manager at Bradgate Bakery, which is a part of the Samworth Brothers group, says: “We’re supporting Protein4Life because it’s the right thing to do. It’s about getting older people to eat the appropriate amount of protein for their biological needs, and then looking at how we in the food industry can help that process in the future by developing products that will contribute positively to that protein need.”

The findings of the Protein4Life research, released in a white paper, show that while public health messages about salt, sugar and fat are getting through to people, there is widespread need for further education about the importance of protein.

Emma Stevenson, Professor of Sport and Exercise Science at Newcastle University's Faculty of Medical Sciences, says: “Besides the poor understanding of the benefits of protein, another barrier to protein intake is cost. Many higher protein foods are expensive and may not be part of the habitual diet of many older adults.”   

She explains there are also issues around palatability and the fact that older adults tend to lose their appetite. “So, the goal is protein-rich food that tastes good, isn’t too filling and isn’t too expensive.”

Changing diets

Armed with the Protein4Life findings, the hope now is that the food industry can use the guidelines to provide tasty higher-protein foods that are suited to the preferences and lifestyles of older adults.

Emma and the Protein4Life academic team, which includes colleagues at the universities of Bristol, Sheffield, Liverpool and Aberdeen, are planning to apply for more UK Government funding with industry partners for the next stage of research, which will look closer at the multiple benefits of higher-protein products.