New possibilities and benefits
Julie Chen, ND
Fermentation can improve the nutritional values of foods such as proteins, as well as enhancing their digestibility.
Many people are drawn to vegetarian proteins for health and sustainability reasons, but not everybody’s taste buds or digestion can tolerate them. A few drawbacks of traditional vegetarian proteins include taste, amino acid profile, and digestibility.
Drawbacks for single sources of proteins
Single sources of plant proteins will usually not have a complete amino acid profile. In addition, if the proteins are raw, their digestibility may be compromised due to the presence of antinutrients such as trypsin inhibitors, lectins, and tannins that can block or interfere with the absorption of nutrients.
Combining a variety of vegetable proteins, such as legumes and grains, will ensure that all the essential amino acids are covered, but it may not improve the digestibility of the proteins.
Although some plant protein products are formulated with added enzymes in an attempt to improve the digestibility of the proteins, the enzymes may be degraded by stomach acid before they become functional in the intestines.
Fermentation—a possible solution
A solution that can optimize digestibility and palatability of vegetable proteins may be found in fermentation, a traditional method of food preparation used for thousands of years.
Fermentation is the natural metabolic process in which organisms such as probiotic bacteria and yeast, or enzymes derived from them, convert sugars and carbohydrates to metabolites such as gas and alcohol. This method of food preparation not only preserves food, but also makes the food easier to digest, as it can remove certain antinutrients.
Research has made an important discovery about fermented foods: they can improve the nutritional values of the food product along with improving digestibility. Studies have shown that the fermentation processes can result in higher levels of essential vitamins as well as the production of new bioactive phytochemicals and polyphenols.
Other studies have shown that fermentation may improve protein quality and potentially increase essential amino acid content. Thus, fermenting vegetable proteins may potentially improve digestibility, increase nutritive value, and improve tolerability.
Fermentation can, however, be disastrous when done improperly or when there is a lack of quality control. It is vital when choosing fermented products to ensure the manufacturer is reputable, carefully monitors the process, and tests the finished product to ensure it is free of contaminants and pathogenic organisms.