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Getting to the Plant-Based Meat of Things: The Health, Impact, and Creation of Plant-Based Proteins
The world of alternative proteins is not only blindsiding existing industries with explosive growth, but directly challenging historic ideas around farming and agriculture, balanced diets, and even what fast food looks like.
Suddenly, meatless burgers and chicken nuggets are available—and selling out—at your local drive-thru.
Plant-based meats are officially everywhere thanks to increased attention on issues like climate change, ethical farming, health concerns, and food scarcity in light of rapidly growing populations.
It’s easier than ever to try plant-based protein options, but that availability and awareness of “plant-based” might be overshadowing the specifics you need to make sure you’re choosing the right alternative protein for your goals.
We need to go beyond the blanket “plant-based” label to truly understand how it fits into the new world of protein possibilities. Let’s unpack what you need to know about plant-based proteins: everything from whole food approaches to how plant-based meat products are made, nutrition and sustainability benefits, and how they compare to other alternative proteins.
Plant-Based Protein vs Plant-Based Meat
There’s a subtle difference between these plant-based terms, but it may affect what information you look for and find online.
Plant-based protein discussion usually centers on whole food and vegetarian protein sources (and products that stem from them, like tofu) whereas plant-based meat specifically refers to meat substitutes created using isolated or concentrated proteins of different plants to mimic animal products you’re already familiar with, like burgers or nuggets.
Both of these plant-based topics stem from people’s goals of eating healthier or more environmentally-consciously. But converting your entire diet to whole food, plant-based protein isn’t always easy.
That’s where plant-based meat can act as the first step in a larger lifestyle transition.
Plant-based meat products share a lot of dietary inspiration and direct ingredients with a fully plant-based diet, so it’s worth looking at the power in raw plant protein to better understand its application.
Whole foods high in protein: the plant-based diet
Ideas around nutrition change drastically and rapidly. The food pyramid got flipped, then abandoned. Fad diets outlaw a food group one year, then obsess over it the next.
A single trend can’t meet everyone’s unique nutrition needs.
But, we need to widen our perspective on nutrition to include the well-being of our communities and the climate of the planet itself.
This was the goal of the EAT-Lancet Commission. Thirty-seven scientists from 16 countries established the first universal scientific targets for a food system that meets the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. Their “planetary health plate”, based on an extensive review of existing literature, consists of half a plate of fruits and vegetables, with the other half built primarily on whole grains and plant-based protein sources.
Moving toward a plant-based diet is both good for you and the planet. Incorporating more plants into your diet provides high levels of important nutrients like potassium, iron, and fiber and studies suggest links to longer life expectancy and reduced risk of heart disease.
But a lot of resistance comes from the question of getting enough protein if you reduce meat consumption.
Plants pack a lot of naturally-occurring protein all on their own. Here are some of the highest per-serving vegetarian protein sources:
- Legumes (also called “pulses” referring specifically to legumes’ edible seeds) which consist of peas, lentils, chickpeas, and other beans
- Soybeans and soy-based products like tofu and tempeh
- Seitan, made from gluten, the main protein in wheat
- Grains like quinoa and brown rice
- Nuts and nut butters
Quantity isn’t everything though—getting the right kinds is just as important as getting enough protein in your diet.
The search for a complete protein
Protein plays an important role as the primary building block for muscle and other tissues, but to be used in our bodies they must be broken down into their simplest form: amino acids.
Of the 20 amino acids, nine are considered essential and must be consumed as part of our diets because our bodies cannot synthesize them on their own. A deficiency in any of these can impair the growth and repair of tissue.
The nine essential amino acids are:
Our historical reliance on animal protein has often been credited to its status as a complete protein, meaning it contains all of these essential amino acids.
Non-meat protein sources like plants have unique amino acid profiles and are often lacking one or more of the essentials. For example, grains are low in lysine, but if paired with legumes that gap in your diet can be filled.
It was previously believed that complementary vegetarian protein sources must be eaten together in a meal to provide the same amino acids as animal proteins—like the classic combo of rice and beans. But it’s now understood that mixing and matching proteins throughout the day can achieve the same goal: our bodies store and use those nutrients over time.
Vegetarians and vegans no longer need to stress about finding the perfect complete protein combination for each meal as long as they vary their protein sources every day or leverage a flexible, vegan, and complete protein like our fungi-based Fy™ protein.
Plant-Based vs Vegan
A plant-based diet includes similar protein sources for vegans, but doesn’t necessarily mean you’re fully embracing a vegan lifestyle and forgoing all animal proteins and their byproducts like eggs, cheese, or honey. Adopting more plant-based whole foods can make transitioning into those larger types of dietary changes easier.
Making small steps can have a big and positive impact on the environment. This is where plant-based meat products come in—allowing easy changes to your existing diet.
Not all non-meat protein sources are created equal. There are differences between available options across nutrition, accessibility, and environmental impact. That’s why it’s important not to take the term “plant-based” at face value.
Understanding plant-based meat
Plant-based meat too often mistakenly encompasses a wide range of protein alternatives. We put out an entire blog to clarify the distinctions between fungi-based proteins, lab-grown meat, insect protein and more meat alternatives that are frequently referred to as plant-based.
But even where the “plant-based” label is accurate, it can still be confusing.
Some plant-based proteins like tofu, tempeh, or jackfruit have been called meat analogs or mock meat for a long time now. These whole foods may be cooked to mimic the texture or flavor of meat but are created using the whole food plant source—so, per our first section in this piece, they’d be considered plant-based proteins in current discourse.
A meat substitute is created by replacing the primary ingredient with something other than meat, often trying to recreate the experience of eating meat through texture and flavor.
With advances in technology, our understanding of plant-based meat has expanded. Now, instead of just mincing and mixing whole food ingredients together like a black bean burger or fermenting soybean cakes for tempeh, meat substitutes are made very differently.
How is plant-based meat created?
To understand the rise of modern plant-based meats, we have to first break down the concept of protein isolates and concentrates.
A protein concentrate is created by removing extraneous elements of the source material to achieve a higher protein composition than the original source would have by itself. For example, soy concentrate is made from defatted soybeans and maintains most of the bean’s original protein content. Concentrates often contain more biologically active components and their high digestibility leads them to be used in products like cereals and yogurts.
Most plant-based meat products today rely on protein isolates. In order to achieve a protein isolate, protein is separated from the plant, allowing its individual use, and the remainder of the plant is repurposed or composted.
Isolates are often used in plant-based protein powder as the most concentrated form of those proteins, with other ingredients added to help with absorption and flavor. Peas, soy, and more of the whole plant foods high in protein from our earlier list are the most common sources for protein isolates in the leading plant-based meat you see on shelves.
While protein isolates are used in meat substitutes as the main nutritional component, other ingredients are included to simulate the sensory experience of meat. Beet juice makes one popular plant-based burger bleed. Other ingredients help these products mimic meat’s flavor.
These additional ingredients are essential for meeting current consumer demand, making a burger alternative “sizzle” like beef patties, and can make it more difficult to understand which options are best for your needs.
Is plant-based meat healthy?
You might think because plants contain a myriad of health benefits, products derived from them must as well. But there’s a wide nutrient range across the growing list of plant-based meats.
Research suggests nutritional advantages in consuming more plant-based meat in place of animal meat through studies tracking changes in clinical markers of heart disease.
Americans consume more red meat than anywhere else in the world and any effort to reduce its inclusion in your diet is positive. Swapping out red meat for plant-based alternatives can reduce cholesterol, saturated fat, add more fiber to your diet, and generally lower risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
With the wide range of available plant-based meat products, it’s important to check labels as you shop. Survey your options for nutrient-dense ingredients with added vitamins and minerals.
Of course, nutrition isn’t the sole deciding factor in selecting your style of eating.
It’s possible to maintain a healthy and balanced diet that includes meat—but you may have ethical or environmental concerns leading you to look for alternatives.
Plant-based protein benefits and sustainability
Rising populations and less arable land available for crops have created a difficult supply and demand question facing our future.
We need solutions for scalable food production, but at what cost?
Factory farming often creates unethical conditions for livestock and contributes greatly to climate challenges. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations finds that 34 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agri-food sectors.
Plant proteins offer a much more efficient solution than traditional meat. Beef production needs 20 times more land than traditional plant-based protein sources. Even a single-item substitution for beef in your diet can drastically reduce your environmental footprint.
But plant-based proteins come with their own challenges.
They still require a lot of land and water and rely on traditional agricultural cycles. Soybean and pea crops take months to mature and, under most circumstances, their development is limited to specific growing seasons.
There are also complications with monocropping and reducing ecosystems’ biodiversity when we are overly reliant on a small number of crops.
For instance, almond milk has seen a surge of popularity as a dairy alternative, and while it does have a smaller carbon footprint than dairy milk, its production has long-lasting environmental impact.
Plant-based meat products also require large facilities to house the equipment required to mix ingredients for mass production with environmental costs from transportation to reach where their food is needed most. (Our proprietary fermentation process helps us tackle some of these same sustainability challenges when we make Fy!)
Currently, plant-based proteins are the most prolific alternative on the market, largely because they’ve directly gained footing as an alternative to beef. But the investment in that area has paved the way for more and more vegetarian and vegan protein sources to find their audience.
The world of alternative proteins beyond plants
Fungi-based protein, insect protein, lab-grown meat, and others are stepping out of the shadow of plant-based options. At Nature’s Fynd, we make a fungi-based protein alternative that’s a net-new, complete protein that can be grown anywhere.
Plant-based protein was just the beginning. Now, there’s a whole emerging world of new protein alternatives to help address climate change, ethical treatment of livestock, and healthy lifestyle goals.
Check out our blog on how the leading alternative proteins stand out from each other and which ones might be best-suited for your needs.