The world’s population is increasing and for many, the issue of how we ensure sufficient food supplies for everyone while also sustaining our planet and natural resources is a major concern. One of the most crucial aspects to address the world nutrition crisis is to deliver food products that ensure the delivery of adequate nutrients to people affected by all forms of malnutrition and the people in general. In the words of FAO Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) sustainable diets have a low environmental impact while contributing to food and nutrition security for the future. In the same way sustainable diets must respect and protect ecosystems and biodiversity, in addition to being accessible, culturally acceptable as well as accessible, safe and healthy.
The food industry has demonstrated the ability to swiftly adapt and develop to meet the increasing demand for sustainable diets. This can be seen in the growing demand for alternatives to protein, which are now becoming accessible to consumers, albeit from more of Global North rather than Global South. This new technology responds to the global increase in demand for protein and could potentially help ease some of the burdens placed in the system of food. However, will these products provide the needed quality (i.e., more nutritious) food and help us move towards global food security?
The rising need for proteins has led to rapid developments facilitated from the industry of food, such as alternative proteins of which the nutritional value can still improve.
Many alternative protein products are less than suitable alternatives due to the fact that they are high in salt, low in some key nutrients and are often processed to the point of being ultra-pure.
Transparency about the nutritional value of different proteins is essential to inform consumers and allow them to make educated choices.
The food industry, consumers and nutritionists are urged to engage to create sustainable and healthy alternatives to protein sources.
Alternative proteins – What are they?
Alternative protein sources range starting from algae and re-engineered legumes derived from plants and a myriad of meat substitutes. Think of lab-grown animal meat and plant-based meats as well as single-cell proteins made from yeast or algae, and edible insects. The market proportion of alternative proteins has significantly increased in the past decade (read more in our blog article Alternative Protein: What’s the deal? ) A wide selection of alternatives are available in supermarkets throughout in the Global North.
According to research Three factors have led to the increase of alternative protein consumption that include animal welfare, ecological health, and tastes. Generally, the intake of alternative proteins is discovered to be higher in women, and those with higher education. Women also have a more positive attitude toward alternative meat products or proteins as a result of the perception of fitness and weight regulation. In general, alternatives to meat are viewed as healthier as compared to traditional meat products. But , apart from the environmental and social strategies for marketing (read more on our blog post Alternative Proteins: Speaking to consumers) What do we know about alternatives to protein’s nutritional value? How do alternative proteins fit into the shift towards healthier and sustainable diets for everyone across the globe?
Beyond the headlines
Alternative proteins could have the capacity to change the food system globally in important ways. Conscious of this movement, stakeholders’ interests are growing quickly. An in-depth understanding of the entire alternative protein market and its effect on public health and nutrition is essential for both public and private actors to fully understand alternative proteins’ role within the global picture. At Sight and Life, we value the importance of going beyond the persuasive environmental (Save plants, Earth Day every day) and health (cholesterol-free and plant-based) claims that are currently associated with such products. We strive to fully comprehend the scientific and nutrition benefits of this upcoming trend.
We explore the nutritional content of five well-known alternatives to protein consumed in the Global North and compare them to their ‘natural’ counterparts.
Many consumers scan the nutrient label and generally focus on the energy content or calories of the product. The energy content of the alternatives we examined was found to be nearly equal to that of their ‘natural’ counterparts. However, since the energy contents of a particular product have almost nothing to do its nutritional value an investigation into its nutritional content is recommended.
We examined the sodium (or salt) quantity – expressed as Daily Value percent (DV) according to the U.S Food and Drugs Administration – of alternative protein products compared with the natural proteins. As illustrated in Figure 1 The same size portion of alternative protein as its natural counterpart contain varying DV percentage of sodium. Actually the products made from alternative proteins are higher than the DV% of their natural counterpart. It is remarkable how much sodium found in the Chicken Chunks from The Vegetarian Butcher. One portion of the vegetarian chicken chunks provides almost the entire daily recommended intake of salt, whereas chicken is usually only 4% per day. In other words, eating one serving of the vegetable Chicken Chunks leads to the intake of 1,36 grams of salt out of the 5 gram daily recommended by World Health Organization. Scientific evidence shows that a large intake of salt is considered to be one of the main food-related risk factors for death globally and is associated with an increased risk of having high blood pressure, stroke and cardiovascular ailments. The findings from these five products are not an the only one to be concerned. A study of more than 150 plant-based products revealed just 4% to be low in salt.
Essential nutrients: Iron, zinc, and vitamin B12
The essential nutrients zinc, iron and vitamin B12 aren’t present in the majority alternative foods, with the exception in the case of Impossible Burger, which has been enhanced with vitamins. In the vegetarian diet they are the most well-known nutrients that are of significance. This issue has been found in Curtain and Grafenauer’s research. The authors discovered just a little less than 25% of the plant-based products (24%) were enhanced with vitamin B12, 20% of them with iron, and only 18% of zinc . While fortification with alternative protein sources could be a feasible solution it is urgent need to examine fortification in the environment of bioavailability of substances in products made from plants – it remains an area that is not explored to date.
A clear understanding of the nutritional value of some alternative protein products has proved to be a bit difficult, as the information provided online or on labels that describe the nutritional content of the product was discovered to be limited. Information regarding energy (calories) and macronutrients as well as fiber are listed for all five alternatives to protein reviewed. The nutrition labels on The Vegetarian Butcher Chicken Chunks and Quorn Mince lack details on the nutritional value of key minerals (calcium zinc) as well as vitamins (vitamin A D, B, and A complex) (Figure 2). Not only did most products do not contain iron or vitamin B12, but the lack of information about nutrients on the labels was alarming since alternative protein sources are often viewed instead of beef products, which are naturally rich in iron as well as B12.
Lack of key nutritional information on the packaging of protein supplements cannot guarantee a full view of their nutrient profile. What impact does this have on the consumption of nutrients by the consumer?
Processing and ingredient list
According to the latest FAO recommendations on ultra-processed food, it was found that four out of five analyzed alternatives to protein were classified as ultra-processed (Table 2.). To determine if alternative protein products could be classified as ultra-processed food, list of ingredients of the products was scrutinized. Particularly, that there existed at least one particular type of ingredient or food ingredients on the list of food ingredients was sufficient to define such item as an extremely processed food. In most alternative protein products ingredient lists, we found flavorings, colorants, thickeners ingredients, emulsifiers, and colors that are all part of food classes that are characteristic of the ultra-processed food category identified by the FAO. Cricket flour was the only alternative protein not classifiable as ultra-processed food. Additionally, in our study of labeling, we observed that the alternative protein products comprised of up to 21 different ingredients, with the exception of cricket flourthat is exclusively made of crickets in dry form.
The increasing demand for alternative proteins has resulted in rapid and impressive innovations from within the world of foods. It’s not yet perfect, but perhaps we should be focusing our efforts on improving nutritional labeling, reformulation of the nutrient content and public awareness about these types of products will help us in achieving a healthier and sustainable supply of protein for everyone.
Consumer guidance and food industry regulations developed by policymakers could make it easier to transition to a plant-based food diet in a sustainable and healthy way. The EAT-Lancet report also contributed to this debate in promoting the more environmentally sustainable (plant-focused) eating habits. However, as a health group, we need to be wary of trade-offs as well as the potential impact on health. The consumer and their access to nutritious, safe affordable, aspirational, and cost-effective food products should be at the foundation of our activities.
In assessing the possibilities of alternative protein sources we should consider their contribution to dietary diversity. Since access and availability to nutritious food is highly related to diversity in diet it is not an exception for alternative protein sources. The promotion of dietary diversity is essential to ensure the sustainability of healthy diets and it is an indicator of the quality of food. The issues of dietary diversity access are prevalent within both Global North (food desert, food swamps) and the Global South.
When we talk about alternative protein sources We must be aware of the numerous and varied needs for animal-sourced protein intake worldwide. In the Global North, it is advised to reduce the consumption of these foods as it has been proven to be a risk factor for several health conditions related to diet. In contrast, an increased consumption of animal-based products is usually recommended for those living in the Global South. In reality, animal-based products are a good source of essential vitamins and minerals and eating them has been found to be significant in reducing the risk of stunting. This suggests that replacing meat with alternatives to protein isn’t always appropriate for all global circumstances.
In addition, they should have access to nutritious food as well as be guided by clear, realistic and current food-based diet guidelines. They should be aware of how to identify the most healthy option from the countless possibilities and, in the context of alternative protein sources, should be conscious that’vegetarian’,’vegan’, or “plant-based” do not necessarily mean that it is a healthy option. The discussion on the nutritional impact of alternative proteins should be embedded within the wider discussion on diet diversification. There is no one size that fits all’ solution and this discussion should be adapted to the specific conditions and nutritional needs of various populations.
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