Alternative Protein Sources
Many of us traditionally think of meat, fish and dairy products as being excellent sources of protein - but they are far from the only foods that can help us meet our protein intake needs. Ranging from traditional foodstuffs to innovative new approaches, below are 9 alternative protein sources that can help us meet the growing global demand for protein.
Soy is the most popular bean on the planet and the plant of choice for most alternative protein food products. But the popularity of soy among consumers has been declining over the past 15 years, due to a range of factors including uncertainty over GMO soy, the overall sustainability of soy farming and the growth of other plant-based proteins such as pea protein. There has also been uncertainty over how healthy soy is, particularly regarding its phytoestrogen content, and soy is the 8th most common food allergy in young children. Nonetheless, soy has been a staple part of East Asian food for thousands of years, and was introduced to the rest of the world’s countries in the past few hundred years.¹
You may have heard people talk and wondered - is soy bad for the environment?
Pea is the world’s second most popular plant-based protein, with interest among consumers increasing in the past couple of decades as it avoids some of the negatives associated with soy. However, pea protein has a strong unpleasant flavour - meaning we need additional processing and flavourings, or to breed more neutrally flavoured pea strains, to make pea protein palatable.²
3. Wheat gluten
Wash the starch out of a wheat flour dough and you’re left with pure gluten - best known as ‘seitan’. The name was coined in 1961 by the Japanese inventor of the macrobiotic diet, but the earliest record of wheat gluten-based food dates back to 544 CE in China. Unfortunately, like most grain crops, wheat gluten is deficient in the essential amino acid lysine.³
4. Forgotten crops
Just three crops - wheat, rice and maize - provide over half of the world’s food energy. The focus on these few crops means we neglect others, such as quinoa - which contains twice as much protein as rice. There are thousands of other nutritious roots, cereals, pulses, nuts and vegetables which could help feed millions of people if we invest in growing them - in fact, in 2020 the Food and Agriculture Organization identified 39 neglected nutritious, local and climate-resilient crops in eight countries of Asia alone.4
Quinoa thrives in salty, arid and dry soils - making it a perfect climate-proof food for our extreme future.
In the 1960s, scientists who feared the world was rushing towards an impending global shortage of protein searched for a fast-growing fungi strain that could produce protein from starch. After screening over 3000 different strains, they settled on Fusarium venenatum. Mycoprotein produced by this strain of fungi is now sold worldwide under the brand name Quorn.5
Fresh microalgae are only around 3% protein by weight, but when dried their protein content can be as high as 30-60%. Although microalgae farming is still at an experimental stage, it could also be highly sustainable to grow, requiring little land or external input and even soaking up carbon emissions from nearby industrial plants. One challenge is their ‘strong, fishy’ flavour and vivid green colour, which limits demand among consumers, and there are also questions about how to process the algae to make its protein digestible and available.⁶
Insects require much less land to farm and convert feed into protein more efficiently than livestock, and up to 80% of an insect can be eaten - compared to around 55% for chickens or pigs. They can even be fed using food waste! 2.5 billion people worldwide eat them regularly already, and while negative stigma exists in some cultures, it’s starting to change: for example, the EU approved its first edible insects (mealworms) this year.⁷
8. Cultured meat
Made by growing muscle cells in a liquid medium, cultured meat aims to replicate ‘real’ meat as closely as possible. Beef is considered the most cost-effective meat to replace, but cultured beef is still in its infancy: the first cultured burger (made in 2013) cost USD 300,000, and today such a burger would cost USD 9 - or nine times more than a burger made from farmed cows. ⁸ The long-term sustainability of cultured meat may also depend on whether it’s produced using clean renewable energy, as growing cultured meat can be an energy-intensive process.⁸
9. Microbial protein
By inserting specific genes into yeast and bacteria and growing them in fermentation tanks, some companies have managed to get them to produce animal-free versions of proteins like egg white and dairy proteins. Back as far as the 1960s, NASA even tried to get microbes to produce a flavourless protein ‘flour’ from nothing but carbon dioxide, water, minerals and some electricity to feed astronauts while they were in space.⁹