WHY YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT COMPLETE PROTEINS

AKA the Amino Acid #completionist run

Proteins do quite a bit (and even that’s a big understatement). Apart from being the main thing you think of when it comes to building muscle, they’re pretty much responsible for everything else going on in the body, as well as in other living things too! But if you’re not a vegetarian or bodybuilder with good reasons to know about what protein you eat, you might be surprised to know that not all protein in food is created equal…

Before we continue, a brief introduction since Tim isn’t actually writing this post! My name is Patrick, and I’m currently a PharmD candidate at California Northstate University working as an intern pharmacist between my studies. While that keeps me plenty busy, I still wear quite a lot of different hats thanks to my wide ADHD-fueled interest base, and as such I’m freelance writing with Vite for this blog post! More about myself after the rest of this post, which I hope you’ll find useful and, dare I say, somewhat entertaining. Bold prediction, I know. 

A Primer on Proteins

To explain this properly enough, we’re going to have to take a quick dive into the molecular world. Unfortunately, I don’t have Ms. Frizzle’s school bus or Bill Nye’s production crew, but I’ll do my best here.

At their most fundamental level (and oversimplified for clarity), proteins are long chains of little molecules called amino acids. These ‘LEGO bricks’ (moleculego bricks, if you would) all share a main core that serves as the ‘backbone’ of the chain while each type of amino acid has a different ‘sidechain’ that branches off the chain to give it different properties, such as bulkiness or water affinity. Think of sidechains like different types of cargo on a long train. They ride on a long chain of railcars using the same set of wheels and chassis for the tracks, but each railcar looks different depending on what it's carrying.

Protein chains aren’t straight, rigid noodles, of course. The entire thing gets pretty long, and the backbone folds. It starts to bend, buckle, and bunch up to form complex blobs and shapes. The actual shape they end up taking is what determines what that protein actually does, whether that is teaming up with other proteins to pull something together (muscle proteins), allowing water to passively come in and out (aquaporins in your kidneys), or even acting as a sturdy structural element (keratin, in hair, skin, and nails). 

To influence the folded shape of a protein (and by extension, its function), the sidechains of amino acids take advantage of some molecular physics involving water that’s too complicated for me to explain in this article properly without making my physical chemistry professor cringe. I’m serious here-- I scrapped 3 drafts for this part before deciding ‘weird sidechain make protein noodle fold that way because smol water physics’ was the thing that made the most practical sense in my brain. Depending on the water affinity of the sidechains and the patterns they’re arranged in, different sections of the protein chain end up being hydrophobic (hydro meaning water, phobic meaning fearing, ‘water-fearing’) while others end up being hydrophilic (philic meaning loving, ‘water-loving). This causes a vast majority of protein shapes to adopt hydrophobic cores and hydrophilic outer layers with the corresponding sidechains forming patterns that either stick inwards if they’re hydrophobic, or outwards if they’re hydrophilic. By changing the amounts and types of amino acids used in a protein and the order that they’re arranged in, you can get everything from slightly different but similar copycat proteins to wildly different protein folds that will do something different entirely. 

So, to recap so far: Different living things make and use different sets of proteins to do things, the thing (or things) a protein can do is mainly determined by its shape, and its shape is a result of the arranged order and quantity of amino acids it has. 

 

What is a complete protein?

Now when we refer to ‘complete proteins’, we’re usually referring to ‘complete’ in the context of what humans need to build our sets of proteins. Generally speaking: Animals and humans will use all 20 types of the common amino acids while plants often get by with leaving out some of those types. A ‘complete protein’ in our case will be a protein that has enough of all 20 amino acids to be used in making new proteins once eaten, digested, and absorbed. Some of these 20 amino acids can be crafted from each other in humans, but others cannot. The amino acids that can’t be created in humans using other amino acids are referred to as ‘essential’ amino acids. By eating a diet with enough complete proteins (and hence, all 20 amino acids), you can ensure that your body has enough amino acids, essential and non-essential, to make whatever it needs as your cells go about their day-to-day functioning.

Naturally, the easiest way to get all 20 amino acids is to eat something that also happens to use all 20 amino acids. Farm animal meat fits the bill perfectly in this case; why bother trying to balance the amino acid sources in a diet when another organism’s already gone through the trouble of pre-packaging itself as a complete protein meal? Of course, even if you aren’t a vegetarian, you probably aren’t going to eat a haunch of meat at every meal like a hungry muscle-clad character plucked right out of a cartoon, especially since the cost and calories would probably add up pretty fast (this is assuming you aren’t otherwise on a special diet, of course). Instead, you’ll often get ‘incomplete’ proteins in plant-based foods. These will carry some, but not all of the types of amino acids the body needs in different relative amounts. By picking and choosing enough different types of incomplete protein sources, especially accounting for essential amino acids, it’s possible to get a complete protein intake with the right combination.

This is why when you read nutrition labels, the number that it gives for protein can be a little misleading. “35 grams of protein” doesn’t specify whether it's complete or not, and it isn’t unreasonable to assume that if the 35 grams doesn’t come from meat, it’s probably going to be incomplete and cause problems if it’s your only source of protein in your diet. Trying to build proteins while running out of amino acids is like trying to build an actual LEGO set but being shorted on all of your flat bricks. Likewise, it’s considerably harder to go about your daily business if your body runs out of essential amino acids to build fresh proteins with.

…So how does Vite Ramen (and Naked Noods) get around this?

 

What complete protein does Vite use?

Enter Vite’s superstar ancient grain: quinoa. (pronounced “keen-wah”)

Vite Kitchens takes its protein seriously, like a certain notorious kangaroo supporting character from a Sanrio show. In a previous blog post Tim went over why quinoa was the perfect candidate for Vite Ramen’s noodle base. Even though Vite’s noods (Naked or otherwise) have gone through a small change or two over time, quinoa flour remains a staple ever since that blog post. . If they hit different, it’s probably just the way you prepared it or the updated cooking instructions (seriously, read the patch notes folks).

From a protein standpoint, thanks to the different proteins quinoa uses to…well, exist: the amino acid content when eating foods using quinoa flour is complete and features all 20 amino acids in relatively sufficient amounts! That 23 grams of protein you see on the Naked Noods label? “Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.” Vite Ramen and Naked Noods take the guesswork out of choosing a meatless protein source and can bolster the protein profile of any other ingredient medley that’s giving you doubts about the completeness of your protein content. 

 

Why add L-lysine?

Okay, so, there is one amino acid in short supply in quinoa, which would be the hydrophilic self-proclaimed longboi lysine. (Lysine’s sidechain length is only rivaled by that of arginine, the rest of the non-looped sidechains are 4 atoms or shorter). Lysine just so happens to be one of the essential amino acids too; humans don’t have the required enzymes to craft other molecules and amino acids into lysine. 

 

Images of Lysine’s molecular models and structure drawing sourced from Wikipedia and the Foldit Wiki. Lysine’s sidechain is a 4-carbon straight chain capped off with an Nitrogen-containing amine group. Nitrogen is commonly colored blue to differentiate it from carbon and oxygen, and these images follow that convention.

 

Through research, development, and min-maxing on a level you’d probably see from a hardcore MMORPG guild strategist, Vite Ramen achieves an optimized complete protein profile. By adding in a little extra L-lysine into the noodle blend, this ensures enough of it is present by the time your noods are piping hot and ready to be eaten.

Again, referring back to Tim’s original blog post on the noods:

“As it turns out, lysine is also a relatively fragile amino acid, and can suffer some degradation in high temperatures. While the degradation temperature is a little higher than boiling, we felt that preemptively compensating for the heat was probably a good idea.”

Couldn’t have summed it up better myself!

But Patrick, you might ask, what does the ‘L’ stand for? That answer’s a little complicated, but I’ll try my best. The topic could be worse, I suppose…

 

Taking the L, Except It’s Educational

Consulting one of the good ol’ science textbooks tells us that amino acids have chirality, which is a specific fancy science word for referring to the fact that things are mirror images of each other with distinct sides that can’t be directly overlaid; they’re not symmetrical. For example, if you held your hands up in front of you and tried to symmetrically overlay them one behind the other, your thumbs wouldn’t line up unless you flipped your right hand over. Same thing goes for amino acids; with a carbon atom acting as the chiral center, the four groups attached to it make it asymmetrical.  

 

A picture of chiral hands and amino acids overlaid on top. Also from Wikipedia, since their images can be freely used.

The H’s represent hydrogens. NH2 represents an amine group, while COOH is shorthand for a carboxylic acid. Hence the name, amino acid. Finally, R is a stand-in for the “rest” of the amino acid, which is whatever the sidechain is. Looking back at the structure of lysine… 

Lysine’s structure drawing, except annotated with my Wacom tablet. Please excuse my scuffed penmanship and choice of Windows Snip and Sketch for my software.

We can see that all of the elements are there for it to be chiral, except for the hydrogen. This is only because most hydrogens are often just implied and not labeled on structures since labeling them all would be messy. That, and scientists are also lazy humans sometimes. 

Truth be told, it’s incredibly difficult to help you visualize this without physical or interactive models, so perform some Google Fu for this one if it’s not sticking. Or, if you just so happen to have some real molecular modeling kits on hand, why not build D & L lysine for yourself? 

But we’re not done yet!  There are actually two ways to label the different forms. One is based on a classification system with complexity comparable to your average Yu-Gi-Oh card’s paragraphs of game mechanics and rules: this would be R & S notation, and doesn’t cover why “L” is involved. Instead, we’re gonna use the (relatively) simpler notation, which is D and L. It refers to the molecule’s ability to rotate plane-polarized light (light wiggling parallel to a flat plane) clockwise or counterclockwise. The technical terms are "dextrorotatory" and "levorotatory"; since dextro refers to the skilled hand which is the right one for most people, dextrorotatory forms bend light clockwise while levorotatory forms bend it counterclockwise.

 

From the Wikipedia Page on Optical Rotation: A light source passes through a filter to only let rays of light that wiggle perfectly up and down pass through (plane-polarized light). Then, the light passes through a chamber with a chiral substance in it which rotates the wiggling angle from perfectly vertical to slanted left or right. A filter at the other end can be aligned with the new angle to let light through and reveal how much the light was rotated.

Most amino acids are levorotatory in living things; the reason why this is the case hasn’t been figured out but everything has evolved around this being the norm anyways. Hence, ‘L’ for levorotatory is the designation for the additional L-lysine added to Vite ramen, since it’s the form your body will be able to use!  

 

A Protein Pro-Team

I’ll end off this post with a mini-review of sorts, though take it with the full disclosure that I’ve been paid for my wordsmithing here: 

As a science-familiar person who was (and occasionally still is) a Vite customer, I can appreciate the lengths Tim and his team went to get the protein content right for Vite Ramen and Naked Noods. To use some more technical terms here, having a non-meat source of protein is often a great first step for a lot of dieting plans as it makes lipid content easier to manage instead of having to tiptoe around the lipids meat adds to a diet. But with the amino acid profile of different plant protein sources being what it is, the barrier to entry to start eating more plant-based foods jumps significantly because of the need to meet essential amino acid requirements. At the end of most school or work days, I’m already exhausted and have trouble mustering the time, energy, and even the appetite (thanks ADHD) to plan and make balanced meals for myself. Devoting more time into discovering and spreadsheeting the limited plant based dishes I like just to arrange them together in a bodged jigsaw puzzle of nutrient intake is just asking for me to skip meals. 

If Vite can keep me sustained until the weekend where I get to have a little more time to cook for myself while providing nutrition I know will keep my body supplied, it’s theory applied into an elegant solution. It makes my ongoing slow adoption of plant-based options in my dietary preferences a lot smoother, and Naked Noods just blows the door wide open with the amount of possibilities I can now work with for noodle dishes. 

 

In Summary

Complete proteins have all of the amino acids your body needs to make proteins, especially the essential amino acids your body can’t craft. Vite Ramen and Naked Noods use quinoa flour to provide a complete protein source with most essential amino acids in great enough amounts. A little bit of extra L-lysine is added to Vite noods to compensate for the small difference needed and to account for how it can sometimes break down when cooked. Using Naked Noods or Vite Ramen is a great way to get complete protein from a plant-based source while exploring other options!

 

About the Author

Patrick “Sockrates” Camarador, at your service! I’m a PharmD candidate at California Northstate University College of Pharmacy, class of 2022, and a student intern pharmacist working at a local independent pharmacy on the weekends! As of writing this you can find me on Twitter as @MrSockrates or on Twitch as S0ckrates (that’s Sockrates with a zero). Links to my YouTube channel can be found on either platform, where I’ve dabbled in some video projects here and there. If you wanna learn more about proteins, you’ll probably want to try out Foldit, a free competitive protein folding simulator game by the University of Washington. I just so happen to be a little specialized in protein science because I used to mainly stream Foldit in the past. A few of my VoDs are still up if you’re looking to get into the game but need a little help seeing what some of the more experienced players do in the competitive puzzles. Other things I’ve worked on included this 6-video project for my clinical rotation featuring useful drug facts for patients and professionals!