Plant based protein has been one of the hottest food and nutrition trends in the last decade. Beans, peas, lentils, soy foods, nuts, seeds and whole grains are all the rage. These trendy protein sources are on a high climbing trajectory that will only continue to rise in the coming months and years.
So why are plant based proteins soaring in popularity? The ever-expanding body of research in plant sciences is proving day by day that replacing animal proteins with plant proteins is the healthiest choice for our bodies by far. Research shows that a plant based diet lowers the risk of heart disease, obesity, hypertension, cancer and type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown consistently that plant based diets are far better for the environment also. Diets that contain large amounts of animal protein increase greenhouse gas emissions from the production of the food, global land clearing and species extinction. Many people are also jumping on board with plant based proteins because of how poorly factory farm animals are being treated.
Plant Based Protein Goes Mainstream
Several decades ago you would have been extremely hard pressed to find veggie burgers, tofu, tempeh, seitan, or plant based milk in any mainstream grocery stores or restaurants. Today these products are literally everywhere including the fact that they are featured daily on television commercials. Taco Bell even has many vegetarian options on their menu today and they are not alone. Many of the fast food chains and restaurants offer plant based proteins such as Denny’s, Wendy’s, Chipotle, White Castle and even Chili’s. Target has it’s own designated plant based protein section in all of its stores.
Just about every single day you hear about a new plant based protein product being released on the market. The Beyond Burger uses heme to make their plant based burger “bleed”, sizzle, and smell exactly like a real burger would. Consequently, at the other end of the spectrum, Hillary’s has scrumptious culinary-inspired veggie burgers that use minimally processed ingredients such as quinoa, millet, greens, sweet potatoes, dandelions and beets. MALK produces organic cold-pressed nut milks created using sprouted, organic nuts. Ripple is a high protein plant based milk crafted from pea protein. Even Tyson, one of worlds largest processors of meat products, just recently announced that it’s jumping on board with plant based proteins. They have invested in the company Beyond Meat, a company that makes plant based burgers that are crafted to taste just the like real thing.
Plant Based Protein Quality
With the growing interest in switching meat proteins out for plant based proteins there has been more demand to understand the quality of various plant proteins. There has been an ongoing debate that has stirred up confusion in both consumers and professionals alike about whether or not plant proteins are “incomplete.” Is it necessary to combine these proteins with other sources of protein in order to create a “complete” protein?
To begin with, proteins are comprised of chains of amino acids, some of which are manufactured within the body while others are not. Those acids that are not produced within the body are referred to as essential amino acids. There are nine different essential amino acids: histidine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, phenylalanine, methionine, threonine, valine, and tryptophan. Proteins within the human body are found to exist in consistent amounts of the various essential amino acids. These levels may also be located in various soy products as well as animal foods according to Mr. Jack Norris, RD, a plant based expert and a coauthor with Ms. Virginia Messina, of Vegan for Life. The proteins that can be found within animal foods and soy products have been considered to be “complete” or “high standard” compared to other plant based protein sources, which may contain lower percentages of at least one important amino acid. Legumes though are relatively close to soy, as noted per Mr. Jack Norris, RD.
Every single plant food contains at least some of each essential amino acid. Legumes are definitely lower in methionine, and just about all other plant foods are lower in lysine. So, as long as an individual consumes a large variety of different plant foods throughout the day, even if they are completely vegan, they will most likely be able to attain an adequate amount of amino acids. This completely disproves and nullifies the antiquated concept made popular back in the 1970s era, which called for “complementing proteins.” The theory was that an individual must combine several various plant proteins such as grains and beans within the same meal in order to provide an adequate amount of each of the essential amino acids in one sitting. However, this has been disproven per the Academy’s position statement regarding vegetarian diets because science shows that the liver is capable of storing the various essential amino acids over the course of an entire day to ensure that the body has adequate nitrogen retention and use in healthy adult aged individuals. Plant based proteins can be complimentary in various amino acid profiles and therefore can provide adequate amounts of essential amino acids. It is not necessary to eat them during the same meal. An individual can attain the various amino acids over the course of an entire day.
To make matters even more confusing there has been no widely accepted definition for the exact term “high quality protein” according to scientists studying plants and their precise compositions.
Can plant based proteins provide adequate and necessary amounts of amino acids for the body’s specific metabolic needs? Food scientists, experts, and nutritionists believe this to be so. Scientists explain that even though specific needs might be a bit different, such as for an individual who is a high-performance athlete who competes in triathlons or those who suffer with sarcopenia, both the quantity and quality of plant based proteins are important.
10 Sources of Plant Based Protein
- Tempeh: Cooked – 1 Cup – 31 grams
- Lentils: Cooked – 1 Cup – 18 grams
- Edamame: Cooked – 1 Cup – 17 grams
- Adzuki Beans: Cooked – 1 Cup – 17 grams
- Navy Beans: Cooked – 1 Cup – 15 grams
- Kidney Beans: Cooked – 1 Cup – 15 grams
- Pinto Beans: Cooked – 1 Cup – 15 grams
- Chickpeas (Garbanzo) Beans: Cooked – 1 Cup – 15 grams
- Lima Beans: Cooked – 1 Cup – 15 grams
- Tofu: Firm – 4 ounces – 11 grams