Alternative Protein Trends: New Sources to Enrich Your Diet

With a growing global population, food supply demands, worsening chronic disease rates, healthcare costs, and other factors, many are looking for dietary and lifestyle changes to improve health and our effects on the environment. Protein alternatives as a meat replacement represent one area of interest.

Key takeaways:
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    Alternative proteins are whole foods or engineered food products that offer a source of protein and some desirable traits of meat.
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    Current options include whole foods and engineered sources that are microbial, insect, or plant-based.
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    Alternative proteins may be more valuable food sources for those concerned with meat supply and demand, and animal welfare practices.
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    Whether or not an alternative protein source is healthier depends on many factors including your individual health goals.
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    Some options contain questionable ingredients, and/or low leucine content. The research appears to show health benefits for replacing at least some meat with plant protein – if total protein intake is kept constant.

What is an alternative protein?

Alternative proteins are whole foods or designed food sources that offer some desirable and familiar traits of meat without containing meat itself. Many options provide a decent amount of protein, as well as contribute taste, aroma, texture, and other appealing qualities.

Many terms may be used interchangeably to describe alternative proteins: “meat substitutes,” “meat replacements” and “meat alternatives” are common. Though there is overlap depending on whom you talk to, alternative proteins are most often referring to meatless options, whether whole food or design, that provide a similar level of protein and/or desirable flavor or texture as meat.

Current options

The plant-based and alternative protein options are growing. Popular brands include Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, ToFurky, Plant Basics, Morning Star, and others. It may help to guide your shopping decisions to understand the primary ingredients that are used to develop alternative proteins.

Microbial-based – Microbes have been used for hundreds of years in the fermentation process to yield a food product – be it beer, bread, cheese, or others. Microbial-based options are derived from microbes grown in a dish in a lab that yields characteristics similar to that of meat. They are a trendy venture, bringing in more than 435 million dollars in investment capital in 2020. Microbial-based alternative proteins are already available in Europe but have yet to become staple alternatives elsewhere. Examples include Impossible Foods, Meati, and Pletify.

Though still very expensive and not readily available, scientists are attempting to also produce large-scale “meat” in a lab by culturing animal cells. Time will tell if this is a socially- and economically-acceptable source for consumers.

Insect-based – Insects are considered by many to be a more sustainable source of protein as they are prolific in nature and require fewer resources. They contain high amounts of protein, as well as provide vitamins, minerals, and fats. Crickets, black soldier fly larvae, termites, and others are already eaten in about a quarter of the world. This type of alternative protein may face more challenges before social acceptance becomes the norm in westernized countries, but insect-based options represent more environmentally-friendly and resource-efficient protein sources for a growing global population.

Plant-based – Plant-based protein alternatives refer to products made from non-meat, plant sources. Common ingredients in this category include isolated proteins like soy and pea protein, as well as whole food ingredients like legumes, nuts, grains, and seeds. Examples include Tofurky and MorningStar.

Whole foods – the legume family - which includes beans, peas, soy, and lentils – represents a common and inexpensive source of non-meat protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals eaten around the world. Peas also contain more leucine, an essential amino acid for optimal muscle growth and maintenance, than protein obtained from soy, oat, hemp, or rice. Though made from animals, dairy does not contain meat and may be acceptable to some as a meat alternative. All forms of dairy such as milk, Greek yogurt, and cheese, excluding butter, provide ample protein and very high leucine content – double that of some plant sources. For example, 1 cup of milk contains 1.0g of leucine whereas 1 cup of soymilk contains 0.5g.

Why do people eat alternative proteins?

According to Don Layman, Ph.D., professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a 40-year scientific researcher of dietary protein’s role in muscle protein synthesis, humans may be near capacity for animal-based protein. The development and continued availability of alternative proteins may be a more sustainable approach to helping individuals meet protein needs – more so than carbohydrate sources.

Alternative non-animal proteins offer an opportunity to meet protein and calorie needs for those concerned with animal welfare conditions.

Alternative proteins may also work well for those who have milk or shellfish allergies and find it difficult to meet protein needs at meals that don’t include meat.

Are alternative proteins healthier?

Whether or not alternative proteins are healthier is based on what your definition of “healthy” is and what your health priorities are. If “healthier” to you means eating closer to nature and less processed foods, then engineered alternative proteins are not likely healthier. Professor Layman states some meat substitutes even contain several synthetic ingredients with questionable long-term safety.

If healthier to you means growing and maintaining muscle mass, improving body composition, and minimizing your risk of sarcopenia (accelerated muscle loss with age), then exclusive alternative proteins may not be your best choice. However, with adequate nutrient, meal, and food source planning, these disadvantages may be able to be overcome.

If healthier to you means less chronic inflammation, meat intake may not matter. One meta-analysis of 20 randomized controlled trials of total red meat intake - with an average intervention period of 8 weeks to 16 weeks – found interesting results. No differences were found in major metabolic clinical markers such as glucose, HOMA-IR, insulin, CRP, HbA1c, IL-6, or TNF-α between those who ate less than or more than 0.5 servings (1.25 ounces) of red meat per day.

If healthier to you means less chronic disease risk, results are less clear but appear to favor some replacement of meat with plant proteins, if protein content is kept the same. A 2022 systematic review of 12 prospective studies in Nutrients found that substituting just 3% of red meat, especially processed, - mainly for plant protein from bread, cereal, or pasta - reduced overall all-cause mortality and cardiovascular risk. Cancer risk showed contradictory results based on the study reviewed, while only women appeared to consistently benefit from substituting meat for soy and other legumes. The keys in these studies were that protein intake was kept constant even when substitutions were made, and they primarily studied whole food plant protein - which may not match real-world eating.

Diabetes risk was also associated with a downward trend in the above study in those that substituted 3-5% of calories from meat protein with plant protein. Older research – a review of 13 randomized controlled trials in 2015 - also confirms improvements in glucose management in those with diabetes when about 35% of the animal protein was replaced with plant protein. This was even more beneficial for those with diabetes longer than 5 years. The good news is even a small substitution appears beneficial – meat need not be excluded entirely.

Unfortunately, these outcomes cannot necessarily be assumed to transfer to all engineered alternative protein foods available in the marketplace today. In addition, for the majority of the studies in the Nutrients review, the diet was only assessed at baseline, which does not likely accurately reflect an individual’s changing lifestyle or dietary habits over time.

Engineered alternative proteins are becoming more popular and available worldwide: find them at your local grocery stores and restaurants. Whole food alternative proteins, such as peas, beans, tofu, and dairy are often less expensive than engineered alternatives but don’t imitate all of the meat’s culinary properties. All alternative proteins offer both advantages and disadvantages to the consumer. Understanding alternative protein options, their properties, and their potential effects can help guide you next time you are considering replacing meat in your diet.

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