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The Future of Protein

By Matthew Kadey

There is a shift in America toward eating more protein. Protein-first diets like paleo are all the rage. So why are so many people hyper-focused on protein? Well, there are some good reasons to make sure you’re getting enough. The amino acids that form the protein in foods are the basic building blocks of the human body, making up everything from muscles to bones to cartilage. Protein-rich foods may also help people feel fuller longer to avoid overeating.

But despite all the finer points of protein, it’s also true that our current consumption patterns are unsustainable. High intakes of meat sourced from resource-intensive and polluting industrialized feedlots are having a big environmental impact. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that livestock production is responsible for up to 51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and mounting research shows that excess meat intake is bad for our long-term health. Yet, it’s not all protein doom and gloom. Movements are afoot to make protein healthier for us and the planet. Here’s what the protein of the future might look like.

Back to nature

People are increasingly trading in beef for beans. In America, about 39 percent of people are working to include more plant-based foods into their diets, and sales are rising yearly. Packaged foods fortified with pea and other plant proteins, vegan butchers and plant-forward restaurants are all part of the trend toward eating more protein that grows from soil.

Eating plant-based proteins is associated with a smaller carbon footprint and boasts a health-boosting benefit too. Among 131,342 study participants, a study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that there was a 10 percent lower risk of death from all causes and a 12 percent lower risk of death from heart disease for every 3 percent increase in total calories people gleaned from plant protein.

“Plant foods provide a number of disease-fighting items, such as fiber and phytonutrients that are not found in animal-based proteins,” says dietitian Julieanna Hever, author of “Plant-Based Nutrition (Idiot’s Guide).” Plant proteins can also play a role in improving the diversity of our microbiome – beneficial bacteria in our guts that have a hand in nearly all areas of health.

Offal-y good

With increasing interest among home cooks and restaurant chefs in practicing nose-to-tail cookery and reducing the waste of nutritious protein, appetites are rising again for offal – which literally means “off fall,” or the pieces including tongue, heart and liver that fall off a carcass when it’s butchered. When prepared correctly, their great flavors may just surprise you.

Game on

For a more sustainable, diversified food system, there is a trend toward searing venison steaks and making a pot of chili with ground bison. In general, game meats like bison, elk, ostrich and boar are more likely to be free-roaming, grass-fed and humanely raised without the use of antibiotics and hormones. With increasing demand, there is more game meat available at butchers, farmers’ markets and even large supermarkets. Their higher price tag can also encourage people to savor smaller portions.

Rise of the impostors

Veggie burgers and meat substitutes have come a long way. Forward-thinking food companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are spending a lot on R&D to produce faux meat products from plants that are more nutritious and deliver a flavor, aroma and texture that even unyielding carnivores can appreciate. Changes like these require only a fraction of the resources required for beef production. These products can also make it easier for people to transition into a plant-focused diet.

Catch of the day

There aren’t enough fish in the sea to feed our planet’s rising population, especially with recommendations to eat two or more servings of fish per week. The best solution for keeping seafood on our dinner plates without depleting our oceans is aquaculture. Following years of serious environmental concerns, our future looks like it may be easier to reel-in sustainable protein from farmed fish. For instance, farmed mussels (which are able to clean their water as they grow) may be one of the most sustainable non-plant protein sources you can buy.

Going big on micro-livestock

Some future-minded food companies want crickets, ants, beetles and mealworms to crawl into the American diet. Ounce for ounce, insects can contain more protein than poultry or beef. More good nutrition news: A Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry study determined that grasshoppers, crickets and mealworms contain higher amounts of bioavailable minerals, including iron, copper, magnesium and zinc, than beef. Insect cultivation also requires dramatically fewer resources, including water and land, and they produce far less pollution than the farming of livestock. To make them easier for the squeamish to swallow, manufacturers are sneaking the dried and ground critters into familiar foods including energy bars, pasta bolognese and baked goods like cookies for a protein boost.

– Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition



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