Wednesday, February 28, 2024
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HomeViewpointsInnes HopeWhy protein matters and why so many are so confused

Why protein matters and why so many are so confused

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New plant-based protein food products are appearing in supermarkets every day – evidence that climate change is being taken more seriously. Hearing about catastrophic events like the fires in Hawaii or experiencing the devastation of floods here in Aotearoa New Zealand, reality is sinking in. In the back of our minds, there’s an undercurrent of worry. For many of us, climate change is too uncomfortable to talk about.

But the good thing is, more people are wanting to do something about it. We want to lower the country’s carbon footprint, particularly the amount of methane, which is, by far, our biggest climate pollutant.

Yes, worries are sinking in. But it seems a more hopeful message – ‘the easiest and most effective thing anyone can do to lower our footprint is to eat more plant foods’ – is sinking in, too, at least in urban areas. That’s got to be good.

The Ultra-Processed Hurdle

People are buying more plant-based foods. But there’s a stumbling block: the words ‘Ultra-processed.’ Various articles are appearing, warning people about eating ultra-processed plant-protein foods.

Ultra-processed foods generally contain ingredients you wouldn’t or couldn’t add in your own kitchen, e.g., chemicals, flavours, colours, modified starches, preservatives, fillers, etc. A whopping 69 per cent of food in our supermarkets is ‘ultra-processed.’ It is good to be wary of it and to largely avoid it. People eating ‘junk foods’ are highly likely to become obese when they’re young, to suffer the diseases of modern civilisation as they age, and to die earlier.

You and I are aware that we can get all the protein we need from a balanced diet of unprocessed and minimally processed whole plant foods. But the vast majority of people don’t know this. And to them, plant foods that have been central in the diets of people of Asia, India, Mexico and other countries for thousands of years seem somehow inadequate. Why? Are we being presented with far more pictures of poor, undernourished people in those countries and not the healthy majority?

The Protein Stumbling Block

Most people know it’s great to eat more fresh vegetables and fruit. They’re aware that homemade wholemeal bread is healthier than regular white bread. Maybe people act on these things, maybe they don’t. Either way it doesn’t affect the shift towards plant-based eating much.

The stumbling block is protein. To most people protein means meat. Meat-based mains have been so central to the Western traditional diet, that people fear they’ll grow ill or weak if they stop eating them. This mindset rules.

So, when traditional eaters consider trying plant-based alternatives, they naturally want burger patties, ‘bacon’ ‘chicken’ ‘mince’ – anything that looks like meat. They want it to have the equivalent protein, and to taste like the ‘real thing’. Hence the popular term, ‘alt-meats.’

They pick up a plant-based pack of, say, burger patties … ‘Methylcellulose? What is that? Natural flavours? Yeah right. How much protein? Not enough.’ In a can of jackfruit, billed as vegan ‘pulled pork,’ and in ‘vegan cheese’ there’s virtually no protein at all! They feel they’ve been had. So do I.

Why Protein is Key

Countries like ours have the highest percentage of climate emissions per capita. We currently run on petrol and protein.

We want viable alternative transport and energy options, but they’re still unreachable for the majority. Eating plant-based is doable! But …

Even though it is untrue, we’re conditioned to believe that protein is everything. Most of the population doesn’t think of dhal or chilli beans as adequate protein foods despite them being so. On top of this, shoppers are rejecting alt-meats, which they presume are full of chemicals and empty of protein. The belief that we need high-protein foods prevents meat eaters from shifting to a plant-based diet. For all these reasons and more, how we get protein is key to reducing our global carbon footprint.

One Extreme or the Other

Local dieticians and nutritionists have been expressing concern over ultra processed plant-based alt-meats lately in a plethora of articles in magazines, newspapers, on the radio, and on the internet. Chickpeas, lentils, etc, are good protein foods, some of them tell us, and much easier on the purse. But other articles seem like scaremongering. This suits the meat industry very well indeed!

But what can our experts officially say in terms of how processed these alt-meats are? NOVA, the best food-classification system world authorities have come up with, has four categories. But it is inconsistent and confusing. In terms of clarity, it boils down to two categories: unprocessed and ultra-processed. One extreme or the other.

When fresh bread is officially a processed food and Vogels bread, ultra-processed, and experts resort to talking about ‘very ultra-processed,’ clearly, we need a better system! We must know the middle ground. We need a system that makes it easy to see, for instance, which supermarket burger patties are healthier than others.

The Animal Protein Equivalent

We can eat solely 100 per cent unprocessed and minimally processed foods if we have the motivation, the time, and the knowledge to prepare them. Sharing such knowledge is largely what this magazine is about. But it’s not easy to overcome the conditioning that causes subliminal anxieties about protein. These drive our behaviour.

After a hard day’s work, many of us are exhausted and want to buy a pack of ready-to-cook protein food (like people do with meat), throw it in the pan, chuck some veges in a pot to go with it, fall into a chair and eat dinner knowing we’ll be nourished. This could be made possible with a better classification system. This future system should take climate change into account.

What would also be helpful for many people, especially those transitioning to plant-based eating, is to know the animal protein equivalent of the plant foods they can use. I discovered this when casually telling a friend he’d be getting the equivalent of two eggs as I served Easy Peasies (p??). He literally relaxed. For him, knowing he’d have enough protein made sense of an unusual looking mush!

A standard international reference animal-protein food used for this purpose is one medium sized egg. To give you an experience of this, I share the ‘egg-equiv’ in my recipe for Easy Peasies printed in this issue. It will be easier to eat plant-based in the fast lane when more cooks can open a pack or a couple of cans of whole foods and whip up a fast meal knowing it contains enough protein.

How Much Protein?

Adults need between approx. 45 and 65 grams of protein daily. Say brekkie was a slice of wholemeal toast with peanut butter. That’s 12 grams. You had 6 grams nibbling almonds at morning tea, and 7 in the day’s soymilk. In your lunch salad, 18 in the lentils, 8 in the quinoa, and 10 in the hemp seeds. Your homemade hummus pre-dinner snack and dollop on your baked whole potato had 8 grams, (+ 3.5 in the potato). You’re wondering what ‘main’ to do. ‘Heavens! You’ve already had more than enough protein today! And not one alt-meat product was involved.

When people are in transition, there’s a bridge to cross, from an animal foods-based diet to plant-based. Then, for people who are health-conscious, from plant-based to whole food plant-based. It’s all about the journey. Let’s focus on the direction, our progress, our inspirational goal – whole foods, plant-based – and keep on keeping on. We’ll get there!

Land of the Long White Cloud

As a bunch of small islands surrounded by ocean, and often covered in cloud, New Zealand is likely to be in for more extreme wind and rainstorms. Drought will challenge some areas too, as it does in Australia. Meanwhile, our thoughts go out to those suffering life-threatening heat in the Northern Hemisphere. 

We are a world family. Let the bonds of love shine through the clouds. May our efforts to make the world a better place bring change. All power to you on your plant-based journey!

Innes Hope
Innes Hope
Innes Hope works in the arts, crafting thoughts into words, verses, and recipes for a better world. She stopped eating animals in the early 1970's inspired by reading the book, Diet for a Small Planet. Innes remains concerned about food justice and the climate crisis, and for her, living a plant-wholefoods lifestyle is an obvious choice - an instantly effective, delicious, resilience-empowering, and deeply rewarding way to help heal the world. Still enjoying better health and energy since discovering whole food plant-based eating over 12 years ago, she encourages others to join her on the journey.
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