The Price of Protein

November 28, 2023

Protein is essential to life. Meat and protein are almost synonymous in the context of human health, and plant protein, as farmers know, is a key feed consideration for animal nutrition. But how protein functions in food processing is also an important consideration. Let’s unravel this bird’s nest of science and commerce to get a practical insight into protein and what that means for pricing.

Firstly, what in tarnation is a protein anyway? Without dropping into pointy head territory, the simple answer is that proteins are made up of amino acids. If you have ever heard of Lysine (the 2009 Matt Damon movie, The Informant, was about Lysine price-fixing), then that is one of the 20 common amino acids. But this is where things get interesting, as not all proteins are built with the same building blocks. In fact, they can be distinctly different. In addition, some amino acids can be generated by animals (including humans), and others have to be ingested - which makes them essential for nutrition, as we can’t get them any other way.  

Take protein in wheat as a case study. Every grower knows that the higher the protein in milling wheat, the higher the grade and the higher the value. But not everyone knows this has absolutely nothing to do with nutrition, and has everything to do with functionality for human food. Approximately 75% of wheat protein is gluten, which is primarily comprised of the amino acids glutamine and proline – both of which are ‘non-essential’ from a nutritional perspective. Gluten, however, provides elasticity, flexibility and extensibility to wheat flour dough; and light fluffy breads, pleasing to the eye, with good mouth feel, typically come from high gluten strength flours.

Because Asian bread makers generally use the sponge and dough technique, which bashes the dough to within an inch of its life, millers need to source high protein wheats for their grist to ensure bakers can make their high strength doughs. The highest protein wheat grains come from North America and they are usually the most expensive too. Accordingly, any cheaper wheats, that can dilute the volume of the more expensive wheats, is margin to the bottom line, which makes Australian high protein wheats attractive – and that demand lifts the price. High protein wheat = strong flour = big loaves = higher price.

To further emphasise the point of protein functionality, having too high protein is an issue in both malting barley and noodle wheat. In both cases, exceeding the protein limit means a drop in price, as it doesn’t perform as well when making beer and Udon noodles respectively. Again, function drives price.  

Given the functional focus on human consumption protein, ‘essential’ amino acids for nutrition need to come from non-grain sources. For example, a chicken and salad sandwich is the human way of creating a balanced feed input, as bread is not only relatively low in protein, but also the protein is of the non-essential type. Chicken meat, on the other hand, is a great source of the essential amino acids and is considered a ‘complete’ protein source.

For animal feed, the equivalent to a chicken and salad sandwich is blending high protein sources that have essential amino acids (e.g., oilseed meal, tallow and pulses – usage dependent on the final product) with high energy cereals plus special nutritional ‘herbs and spices’ to create a single pellet. As each source of protein has its own amino acid profile and not all are complete, the management of ration input is critical to nutrition.  

To further complicate the protein equation, it is not just about the ratio of one amino acid to another, it is also the amino acid ratios-to-energy that produces the golden balance that ensures valuable proteins are not wasted. Not only are all proteins not created equal – some are even less equal than others when combined with energy. Bunging in any old protein at the crude level is not the way to optimise animal performance.

Suffice to say, the bulk of grain pricing is based on functional processing performance for human food, whereas the bulk of feed grain and feed byproduct pricing is based on filling the gaps in the nutritional profile of the ration.

So, when you next hear someone say that something is only good enough to be fed to pigs, then, these days, that is probably nutritionally better than what is fed to humans!