App for smart protein combinations in vegetarian food for the elderly

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App for smart protein combinations in vegetarian food for the elderly

More and more food providers are “greening” the menus in healthcare institutions and hospitals. An app is being developed at Wageningen University & Research to monitor the nutritional status of the elderly. With the help of artificial intelligence, this app makes smart combinations of foods to solve the “protein puzzle” in greening menus. This is what Dr Ir. Pol Grootswagers, postdoc researcher at Wageningen University & Research, told during the 15e National Nutrition Congress on March 16 in Veenendaal.

Fuller plates and more chewing

Currently, about 80 percent of the proteins in elderly people in care institutions come from animal origin. ‘If you replace them with vegetable proteins, protein intake may be compromised,’ Grootswagers stated. The elderly have a high protein requirement, while a plant-based diet contains less protein. Grootswagers: ’20 grams of protein require 70 grams of steak, or no less than 260 grams of chickpeas. 90 grams of soy is needed to provide 20 grams of protein. Soy is therefore a good source of vegetable protein.’ There are also disadvantages to plant-based food in terms of micronutrients. For example, vitamin B12 does not occur naturally in plant-based foods, while 10 percent of the elderly have a vitamin B12 deficiency. A plant-based diet is also low in iron, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. The prevalence of vitamin D deficiencies in the elderly is 40 percent, says Grootswagers. Furthermore, a plant-based diet contains a lot of fiber, which has a satiating effect. According to Grootswagers, to get enough protein with a plant-based diet, fuller plates are needed and the elderly will have to chew more.

Smart combination of foods

Another disadvantage of plant-based food is the lower protein quality: the bioavailability of protein is lower and the amino acid profile is incomplete. In addition, the elderly have a lower anabolic response to protein. Muscles are made up of amino acids in a certain ratio. ‘What happens if you don’t consume one essential amino acid?’ Grootswagers asked the approximately 200 participants. Most of those present knew that in that case no muscles are made of low quality. Also, the other amino acids are not stored in the liver until the limiting amino acid is available to make muscle protein. Grootswagers gave the correct answer: the available amino acids are then burned as an energy source and are therefore lost as protein building material. In order for amino acids to reach the muscles, sufficient essential amino acids are needed. Grootswagers: ‘This can be done by eating more and thus getting more of all the amino acids. Or by cleverly combining foods. For example, legumes contain little methionine, but a lot of lysine, while rice contains a lot of methionine and little lysine. Rice with beans is comparable to meat in terms of amino acids.’

Solve protein puzzle

The example of rice with beans is relatively simple, but in practice combining foods for an optimal amino acid composition is difficult. That is why Grootswagers is developing an app within Project Alpha that combines data from NEVO with information about amino acids and digestibility. Using artificial intelligence, smart algorithms compare a user’s intake with personal needs and look for alternatives and combinations of foods that supplement the intake. Grootswagers estimates that it could take another 2 years before the app comes on the market, but then it can be used to solve the “protein puzzle” in greening menus in healthcare institutions and hospitals.

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