What is Protein Denaturation?
As a fitness-minded individual, you understand the importance of getting adequate levels of quality protein in your diet. After all, all of those intense workouts won't do you much good if your muscles don't have what they need to recover and grow.
So, you likely pay a fair amount of attention to both the quality and quantity of your protein sources. And concepts like denaturation are probably terrifying.
But what, exactly is protein denaturation? Should you really be that worried about it?
Let's Talk Chemistry
To fully understand what protein denaturation is and how it might impact your nutrition, we need to talk about the chemical structure of proteins. As you might remember from high school biology, proteins are made up of small substances, called amino acids.
These amino acids are then arranged in a very specific order and shape to make up individual proteins. In fact, it's this amino acid content that makes proteins the valuable macronutrients that they are.
Once you ingest protein through your food, your body takes them apart and repurposes those amino acids to build anything it needs, from hormones to cells and tissues.
This process of breaking down and reorganizing a protein's structure is what we call protein denaturation and can occur through a variety of processes. As mentioned, the heat, acid, and mechanical action of your digestive system all denature proteins.
But digestion isn't the only time that proteins endure denaturation. Heat, acid and mechanical action can all be placed on a protein during any number of manufacturing procedures designed to create protein powders and protein-rich foods.
In fact, even cooking an egg will partially denature the proteins found therein. It should also be noted that, in order to isolate the proteins found in milk – whey and casein – curdling agents like heat or acid are usually applied to the whole liquid.
Depending on the temperature, duration of processing or other agents used, this can denature the milk proteins to varying degrees.
Should You Be Worried?
Clearly, denaturation is sort of a natural part of life for a protein and is somewhat unavoidable. But, does it make your protein useless?
If denaturation did, indeed, stop your body from making good use of dietary proteins, then you would be severely malnourished. Remember, proteins get denatured during digestion, long before they're ever fully absorbed into your cells.
So, even though denaturation does change the shape, and therefore the function of a protein, it means that the protein is entirely without value. Granted, these denatured proteins might be a little more challenging for your body to digest but there is no solid evidence to support this theory.
Ultimately, there is no reason to be overly concerned about whether your protein is denatured. This process occurs naturally and will not noticeably change the function or availability of the protein in your diet.