Forget the meat: plants are the new source of protein

By Paula Rincon

A few years ago, tofu and tempeh were the only protein alternatives available to vegetarians and anyone who wanted to cut back on meat. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the buzz (even among carnivores) about other plant-derived proteins.

Why are vegan proteins becoming so popular?
Industrial livestock production is very expensive in relation to plant-produced proteins. Animals take up more land, energy, water and other resources than their “greener” counterparts. There is also the issue of increased greenhouse gas emissions resulting from farming and livestock. With this in mind, many scientists have started to bet on technologies to mass-produce plant-based proteins.

This mass-production of plant proteins is translating into a rising number of vegan protein-enhanced food items other than the usual shakes and meal replacement powders. Protein granolas and even protein candies are popping up in grocery aisles. Other items that now feature a “protein-fortification” are yogurts, ice creams, nut milks and pasta. In other words, plant-based proteins are becoming more widely available and accepted by consumers.

But for those still unsure of the differences between these proteins’ sources, here is a list of the most common ones:

Soy protein
Soy protein is the oldest and most popular form of mass-produced protein. Its popularity is based on its wide availability and the fact that soy contains all nine essential amino acids. Soy isolates are the purest form of soy protein with 90 percent of protein content. Soy concentrates have a lower protein content of 70 percent. Soy flours only have a 50 percent protein content.

There are some concerns associated with the consumption of soy-based foods due largely to the presence of isoflavone phytoestrogens (endocrine disrupting compounds in soy). Phytoestrogens in soy are the reason why pregnant women are often advised to consume soy products only in moderation.

Pea Protein
This is another so-called complete protein because of the presence of all essential amino acids. Pea protein was only recently introduced to the market. It has gained a lot of attention among bodybuilders who prefer its high content in branch-chained amino acids, or BCAAs. BCAAs make up roughly 15 percent of the amino acids in the skeletal muscle. BCAA supplementation is known to increase skeletal protein synthesis, as well as to decrease muscle protein degradation in training athletes.

Rice Protein
Most rice proteins are extracted from whole-grain rice through an enzymatically-mediated process. Rice protein is rich in cysteine and methionine, sulfur-containing amino acids with crucial structural and metabolic roles. The flavor and texture of rice protein makes it less appealing than other plant-based proteins, which is why it is usually mixed with pea protein for commercial purposes.

Rice protein is popular among athletes and other health-conscious people who are very particular about their protein ingestion and timing. Rice protein is right in the middle between fast and slow digesting proteins.

Microalgae or tiny vegetable-based proteins
Microalgae and other marine vegetables are at the forefront of innovative meat-free proteins. Microalgae are microscopic, unicellular algae which have been dubbed “whole-food” ingredients because in addition to protein, they are rich in micronutrients, fiber and lipids. Marine plant vegetables such as mankai and water lentil are grown hydroponically and promise a great twist in the way we mass-produce protein ingredients. Although these alternative sources of protein are relatively unexplored at the moment, they have potential as highly efficient and sustainable super-foods.

We cannot predict whether meat consumption will ever cease. It will probably never be the case, but what we do know is that humans joyously embrace variety and diversity. Scientists endlessly work towards making nutrition-packed foods of diverse sources more palatable. And as we become more aware of our need to find sustainable sources of essential nutrients available to the entire population, plant-based products will continue to be part of the new product launches of our century. For more information on the sustainability of protein sources, click here.

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