Processing soya does not decrease its protein nutritional quality, according to a new study by scientists from consumer goods giant Unilever and Wageningen University and Research.

Although soya was used extensively in plant-based products, some consumers had concerns about the nutritional quality of plant-based alternatives, such as soya, and held negative views about the impact of processing, Unilever said on 11 October.

In the study, scientists from Unilever and Wageningen University and Research in Netherlands set out to challenge these perceptions by looking at processed soya, an ingredient extensively used by Unilever in its plant-based products.

The study found that rather than compromising the protein quality of soya used in the company’s plant-based foods, processing slightly increased its nutritional quality, Unilever said.

“Given the rising demand from… consumers looking to transition away from meat but still looking for nutritious, high-quality food, this research is very exciting as it proves that meat-free alternatives… do fulfil our bodies’ protein requirements,” Amelia Jarman, Unilever’s Future Health and Wellness Science and Technology director, said.

A common ingredient in plant-based foods due to their high protein content, soyabeans could not be directly added to products in their natural form, Unilever explained, and before use had to undergo soaking, heating and dehulling.

To better understand the effect of processing on protein quality, the study assessed the digestibility indispensable amino acid scores (DIAAS) – the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s standard measure – of various products. The higher the score, the better the protein source fulfils the body’s requirements, with a score of 75 or above considered good.

Analysis of the data showed different protein quality scores between soya product groups, but the DIAAS score for soya protein concentrate – the most commonly-used in food – was 88, which was slightly higher than the initial soyabean (which scored 85), Unilever said.

The company said it would use the data from the research to help in the development of new plant-based meats.

Unilever has pledged to reach €1billion/year (US$974,270,000/year) sales from plant-based meat and dairy alternatives by 2025/27.