Alternative Proteins: The nutritionists perspective
11 October 2020
Kesso Gabrielle van Zutphen-Küffer
Director - Science
The world’s population is growing, and for many, the question of how we ensure an adequate food supply for all while sustaining our planet and natural resources is a crucial one. Fundamental to addressing the current global nutrition crisis is to deliver food that can guarantee delivery of adequate nutrients to people affected by all forms of malnutrition and the population as a whole. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), sustainable diets have a low environmental impact while contributing to food and nutrition security for our present and future generations. In other words, sustainable diets should respect and protect ecosystems and biodiversity next to being culturally acceptable, affordable, accessible, safe and healthy .
The food industry has shown the capability to rapidly adapt and innovate to meet the growing demand for more sustainable diets. This initiative is particularly reflected in the growing market for alternative proteins, which are increasingly becoming available to consumers, albeit in the Global North rather than Global South. This innovation responds to the globally growing demand for protein and could potentially alleviate some of the pressures on the food system. However, do these products meet the need for higher quality (i.e., more nutritious) food and help us move towards global food security?
The increasing demand for protein has resulted in rapid innovations led by the food industry in categories such as alternative proteins, of which the nutritional content can still improve.
Currently, many alternative protein products are less than ideal substitutes considering they are high in salt, low in some key nutrients and often ultra-processed.
Transparency regarding the nutritional content of alternative proteins is needed to inform consumers, enabling them to make informed choices.
Policymakers, the food industry, consumers and nutritionists are called to dialogue to deliver nutritious and sustainable alternative protein products.
Alternative proteins – what are they?
Alternative protein sources encompass everything from algae to re-engineered plant-based legumes and a variety of meat substitutes. Think of lab-grown meat, plant-based meat, single-cell proteins from yeast or algae, and edible insects. The market share of alternative proteins has significantly increased in the past decade (read more in our blog post Alternative Protein: What’s the deal?), and a large variety of products are found in supermarkets throughout the Global North.
According to scientific literature, three factors have led to the increase of alternative protein consumption: animal welfare, environmental friendliness, and taste preferences . Generally, the consumption of alternative proteins are found to be higher among women and the well-educated . Women also tend to have a more positive attitude towards meat alternatives or alternative proteins than men due to perceptions of health and weight regulation. Overall, meat alternatives are perceived as healthier when compared to regular meat products. But besides the environmental and social marketing strategies (read more in our blog post Alternative Proteins: Speaking to consumers), what do we really know about alternative protein products’ nutritional value? How do alternative proteins fit in the transition towards healthy and sustainable diets for everyone, everywhere?
Beyond the headlines
Alternative proteins have the potential to disrupt the global food system in significant ways. Conscious of this movement, stakeholders’ interests are rapidly increasing. A complete understanding of the entire alternative protein landscape and its impact on public health and nutrition is required for both public and private actors to fully comprehend alternative proteins’ role within the global scenario. At Sight and Life, we value the importance of going beyond the persuasive environmental (Save the plant, Earth Day every day) and health (cholesterol-free, plant-based) claims that are currently associated with such products, and strive to understand the science and nutritional benefits of this emerging trend.
In this blog, we dive into the nutritional content of five popular alternative protein products consumed in the Global North and compare them to their ‘natural’ counterparts (Table 1).
Table 1: Protein products compared to their ‘natural’ counterparts
Most consumers quickly glance at the nutrient label and generally focus on the calories or energy content of the product. The energy content of the alternative protein products we reviewed was found to be roughly equal to that of their ‘natural’ counterpart. However, because the energy content of a product has very little to do with its nutritional content, a deeper nutritional investigation is warranted.
We took a look at the sodium (or salt) content – expressed in Daily Value % (DV) according to the U.S Food and Drugs Administration  – of alternative protein products compared with their natural counterparts. As illustrated in Figure 1, the same portion size of alternative protein and its natural counterpart contain varying DV% of sodium. In fact, the alternative protein products exceed the DV% of their natural equivalent. Remarkable is the sodium level found in the Chicken Chunks from The Vegetarian Butcher. One portion size of the vegetarian chicken chunks provides almost a quarter of your daily recommended salt intake whereas chicken is typically 4% DV. In other words, the consumption of one portion of the vegetarian 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 high salt intake represents one of the major dietary risk factors for death worldwide  and is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and cardiovascular diseases. Unfortunately, the findings from these five products are no exception. A study involving over 150 different plant-based products found only 4% of them to be low in salt .