I’m seeing more and more plant-based protein ingredients added to food products these days. A product called Harvest Snaps, for example, uses green peas, red lentils and black beans in their chip-like snacks. These pea, lentil and bean-based crisps have more protein and dietary fiber and less fat and sodium than regular potato chips. Not bad.
Nuts and nut butters can also boost protein in our diets. And peanut butter now has several friends on the shelf, including cashew, almond and hazelnut butters.
I recently sampled a couple of Once Again nut butter spreads — one with hazelnuts and cocoa and the other with almonds and cocoa. My grandkids would love this stuff but I’m not a huge fan. Rather than nuts, the primary ingredient in these products is added sugar. To be fair, though, the chocolate hazelnut variety from this American company is higher in protein and lower in dangerous saturated fat than other well-known brands. Moderation in all things, remember?
Protein. It’s the most fundamental ingredient of human and animal tissues. And while many people, especially Americans, consume too much of this vital nutrient, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that a billion people worldwide consume an inadequate amount of protein.
Is there a difference between plant proteins and those from animal sources such as eggs, milk, fish and meat? First, a short nutrition lesson:
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, our human bodies contain 10,000 different proteins that make us what we are and keep us that way. Proteins form skin, body organs, muscles, DNA and other genetic material, sex hormones, our immune system and enzymes that digest our food. Pretty important.
Our bodies make all of these proteins from just 20 amino acids — the building blocks of protein. Of these, nine are “essential” because the only way we get them is by eating foods that supply them.
Animal sources of protein, including eggs, milk, fish and meat, supply all the essential amino acids. Most plant-based sources (with the exception of soy and quinoa) lack one or more vital protein building blocks. That is usually not a problem, however, if a person eats a blend of various plant-based proteins. Beans and rice, for example, fill in each other’s amino acid “gaps.”
Plant and animal-based proteins also differ somewhat in their digestibility, or how well they are absorbed and utilized in our bodies. Researchers tell us that a lower proportion of the amino acids in plants get digested, absorbed and used for projects like muscle building. In fact, recent studies have found that animal-based proteins have a greater ability to sustain muscle mass, especially as we age, than plant-based sources.
That said, plant foods can supply all of the essential amino acids required for health. And protein from a variety of sources — plant and animal — is probably the best advice for optimal health.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in California. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to firstname.lastname@example.org.