Alternative sources of proteins that can save the planet

nutrition, alternative proteins, climate change

Alternative proteins have a smaller ecological footprint.

Photo credit: SHUTTERSTOCK

What you need to know:

  • A study published by the University of Melbourne defines alternative proteins as plant-based and food-technology alternatives to animal protein.
  • Such foods include food products made from plants such as grains, legumes and nuts, fungus (mushrooms), algae, insects and even cultured (lab-grown) meat.

Environmentalists seem to have a beef with beef — in a good way.

Here is the thing, beef, without a doubt, is a great source of protein.

As nutritionist Grace Muteti explains to Healthy Nation,  proteins are building blocks of our bodies. They take part in developing and repairing the body and can also be used as sources of energy.

“Our hair, nails, skin, eyes, hormones, antibodies and most of our body organs are made up of proteins,” she explains.

These proteins can either be animal-based like beef or plant-based like beans.

While they are all great at what they do, they vary in how they work in our bodies.

“Animal proteins are complete proteins, meaning that they have essential amino acids that most plant based proteins lack. Animal proteins also have heme iron (which makes haemoglobin used in blood formation),” she says.

“Plant proteins, on the other hand, are good sources of fibre which helps in digestion. Generally, consuming more plant proteins is good for one’s health. While there is a link between animal proteins and heart disease, plant proteins reduce the risk of such illnesses. Having a mix of both is a great addition to our body,” she adds. For environmentalists, beef, regardless of how great it is, should be taken in moderation. During a two-day African Protein Summit organised by the World Animal Protection last week, experts explained the need for shifting to  alternative sources of proteins.

The organisers of the summit noted that  with eating less meat, and from higher welfare production systems and alternative proteins, there will be less greenhouse gas emission leading to less effects of climate change.

A 2020 study conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) pointed out that global demand for meat products had increased by 58 per cent between 1995 and 2020.

“Meat demand in the developing world will double by 2020. Between the mid-1970s and 1995, meat consumption in the developing world rose from 11kg to 23kg per person. Two major contributors to this demand were China and Brazil,” said the FAO study.

Dr Victor Yamo, farming and campaigns manager at the World Animal Protection, explained that this skyrocketing demand for meat has contributed to billions of stressed animals mutilated and confined to cramped and barren cages or pens for their whole lives.

“Animals cruelly packed in such shades are often immensely stressed; leaving them prone to infection by bacteria or parasites that can cause foodborne illness in humans, such as Salmonella” , said Dr Yamo.

With this in mind, Dr Yamo implored African governments to link public health and planetary impacts of industrialised farming systems and commit to stopping the support for these systems.

“The commitment in the form of a moratorium on industrial livestock production systems should be within the National Climate action plans (known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)) in recognition of these systems contribution to climate impacts. The African governments must also develop and implement national One Health, One Welfare action plans that recognise the health impacts of industrialised livestock and restrict its growth.

“We recognise that the change will be slow but sure and that systemic shifts are needed to deliver the biggest health gains for our population. Some of those include re-orientating subsidies away from factory farming towards humane and sustainable practices, improving affordability of plant-based foods, and providing transition support for farmers no longer wishing to engage in factory farming,” said Dr Victor Yamo.

Recognising the need for shift if we are to heed to science, then alternatives that will be useful in protecting our planet can be an option.

An article published by scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health suggests ways of slowly shifting to food that is healthy to both the planet and our bodies.

“Eating legumes (beans and peas), nuts, seeds, whole grains, and other plant-based sources of protein is a win for your health and the health of the planet. If most of your protein comes from plants, make sure that you mix up your sources so no “essential” components of protein are missing. The good news is that the plant kingdom offers plenty of options to mix and match,” said the scientist.

“If you’re thinking of a meal that features red meat, see if you can replace it with a better option, like poultry or seafood.”

Some researchers have also come up with plant-based meat alternatives that have been developed in laboratories.

A study published by the University of Melbourne defines alternative proteins as plant-based and food-technology alternatives to animal protein. Such foods include food products made from plants such as grains, legumes and nuts, fungus (mushrooms), algae, insects and even cultured (lab-grown) meat.

“Depending on the product, alternative proteins are able to simulate the taste and texture of conventional meat, and are more sustainable. They have a smaller ecological footprint, and are more nutritious than conventional meat, protect animal welfare or contribute to food security,” said the research.

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