Background: Indispensible amino acids (IAAs) are used by the body in different proportions. Most animal-based foods provide these IAAs in roughly the needed proportions, but many plant-based foods provide different proportions of IAAs. To explore how these plant-based foods can be better used in human nutrition, we have created the computational tool vProtein to identify optimal food complements to satisfy human protein needs.
Methods: vProtein uses 1251 plant-based foods listed in the United States Department of Agriculture standard release 22 database to determine the quantity of each food or pair of foods required to satisfy human IAA needs as determined by the 2005 daily recommended intake. The quantity of food in a pair is found using a linear programming approach that minimizes total calories, total excess IAAs, or the total weight of the combination.
Results: For single foods, vProtein identifies foods with particularly balanced IAA patterns such as wheat germ, quinoa, and cauliflower. vProtein also identifies foods with particularly unbalanced IAA patterns such as macadamia nuts, degermed corn products, and wakame seaweed. Although less useful alone, some unbalanced foods provide unusually good complements, such as Brazil nuts to legumes. Interestingly, vProtein finds no statistically significant bias toward grain/legume pairings for protein complementation. These analyses suggest that pairings of plant-based foods should be based on the individual foods themselves instead of based on broader food group-food group pairings. Overall, the most efficient pairings include sweet corn/tomatoes, apple/coconut, and sweet corn/cherry. The top pairings also highlight the utility of less common protein sources such as the seaweeds laver and spirulina, pumpkin leaves, and lambsquarters. From a public health perspective, many of the food pairings represent novel, low cost food sources to combat malnutrition. Full analysis results are available online at http://www.foodwiki.com/vprotein.