How Amino Acids Can Solve the World’s Health and Nutrition Challenges

These days we hear a lot about amino acids. But many of us probably do not understand how they work or their link to human health. Simply put, amino acids are the secret to eating and living well. Aware of their infinite possibilities, the Ajinomoto Group is vigorously pursuing amino acid research across a wide range of areas. To find out more, we spoke to Chika Morishima, Corporate Executive Officer in charge of Domestic and Overseas Corporate Communications, about the philosophy behind the company’s research activities. Why are amino acids essential to living a healthy life? How does human evolution explain why we can only obtain certain amino acids from food? By understanding the power of amino acids and how they work, we’ll gain a deeper understanding of why eating well is so crucial to our lives.

Amino acids make up proteins

Amino Acids: The Source of Life

“Did you know that amino acids are a key component of the human body and play an essential role in human nutrition? But before we discuss amino acids, let’s review some basic facts about the human body. You’re probably aware that about 60% of our body is composed of water. Of the remaining 40%, half is protein. That protein is made up of a combination of twenty amino acids.”

“In other words, our muscles, hair, nails and skin, as well as our blood, hormones, and our immune system are all made up of proteins, namely amino acids. Our body could not exist without them. Only twenty amino acids are essential to humans. Of these twenty, eleven can be produced by our body. We must obtain the remaining nine amino acids in the form of food. These are called essential amino acids.”

If we told you that plants can make twenty amino acids, you might wonder why humans can make only eleven. According to Morishima, the reason lies in the process of human evolution.

“Plants cannot move, so it’s imperative they produce all the amino acids they need themselves. But animals are mobile. They can hunt and forage for food. When we learned how to hunt, humans began to obtain protein in the form of meat. Over the course of human evolution, our bodies stopped making nine of the twenty amino acids, opting instead to get them from our food. And since we no longer had to worry about making those nine amino acids ourselves, we could focus instead on developing higher-level functions, such as more evolved brains.”

In the human body alone, amino acids, which it can be said underpin all the body’s vital functions, produce over 100,000 different proteins. In other words, those 100,000 or so proteins are all made up of various combinations of just twenty different amino acids. The blueprint that determines the exact number and arrangement of amino acids in each protein is encoded in our DNA.

“Plants, animals and all living things on earth would not exist without amino acids.”