Tofu animal, almond milk, vegan cheese and Beyond Meat - the plant-based alternatives that replace conventional animal protein sources such as meat and cheese are numerous and are becoming increasingly popular. “Eating meat is no longer appropriate and is damaging to the environment,” is the opinion of the passionate representatives of plant-based alternatives. Younger generations in particular want to eat more environmentally consciously and are more often switching to vegetarian or vegan lifestyles in the hope of cushioning the mistakes of previous generations and making better decisions for our planet. However, scenes of rainforests being cut down for soy production also make us doubt this way of thinking.
What is right? And what's really behind the new nutritional trend? What motivates people to replace animal proteins with vegan alternatives, what are proteins actually and what are the studies? We would like to clarify all of this in this article and come to a conclusion about what an environmentally conscious and sustainable diet with the best possible nutritional value should look like.
What are proteins?
Proteins are essential for us humans. There are more than 100,000 proteins in the human body. Proteins used to be, and sometimes still are, referred to as proteins. This term can be traced back historically to the first isolation of a protein from chicken egg white. However, biologists at the time were able to determine relatively quickly that proteins are not found exclusively in chicken eggs, but in almost every living cell.
Depending on their composition, proteins are involved in countless processes in the human and animal body and are therefore important for survival. Proteins are composed of 20 amino acids, which can be broken down using a written name according to the “head-to-tail connection”. Amino acids ensure that the cells in our body can renew and multiply.
An exemplary protein is usually made up of 300 different amino acid sequences. There are countless amino acid sequences that form different structures with equally numerous functions. The amino acids in our body are renewed and exchanged throughout our lives - this important process is called protein biosynthesis. For precisely this reason, it is important that we regularly consume high-quality and different proteins and amino acids.
But how do animal proteins differ from plant proteins?
Basically, proteins, whether of animal or plant origin, consist of amino acids. These proteins differ in their respective structures or their amino acid profiles. A soybean sometimes contains the same amino acid as chicken meat or cow's milk.
Animal proteins often contain more essential amino acids than plant proteins. Our body cannot produce essential amino acids on its own, but must absorb them through food. However, our body can produce non-essential amino acids itself, which is why we do not need to consume them in the same amounts as essential amino acids through food.
An important term with regard to proteins is the so-called biological value. The biological value gives us information about the quality of proteins in food.
The goal of biological value is an optimal and balanced protein metabolic balance. It is therefore important to know how much of an ingested dietary protein can be converted into our body's own protein. Animal proteins such as chicken eggs, chicken meat, beef and salmon have a very high biological value.
But what about plant proteins?
Plant-based foods such as quinoa, oatmeal and peas can also be high-quality protein sources.
Many plant proteins often contain all 20 amino acids, but some of them only in a limited number. This limited number of amino acids is known as the “limiting amino acids” in plant proteins. They are the reason why an exclusively plant protein-based diet can lead to a deficiency of certain essential amino acids in humans.
Digestibility and bioavailability also distinguish plant proteins from animal proteins.
The so-called DIAAS, the index for digestible, indispensable amino acids, determines the digestibility of dietary proteins and is expressed in values below or above 100.
A DIAAS value over 100 means that a protein has a very high digestibility and is therefore of high quality for human protein metabolism. DIAAS values below 50 indicate low protein quality, as these proteins are difficult to digest and can only be utilized with difficulty and to a limited extent by the human body. Animal proteins often have a higher DIAAS value compared to plant proteins. For example, wheat and almonds have a DIAAS score of 40, while whole milk has a score of 114 and chicken breast has a score of 108.
Reasons to replace animal proteins
Why do so many people replace animal protein sources when these often have better biological value and higher protein quality?
The main reason for this is probably animal welfare and factory farming, which have drastically worsened the quality of life of animals and also the quality of animal proteins in recent decades.
Animal husbandry, environment & animal welfare
Factory farming, undignified living conditions for animals and the love of animals are some of the main reasons why many people have switched to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle in recent years.
Many people who do not want to consume meat under conditions that are inappropriate for animals are rightly changing their minds.
The minority of vegetarians and vegans say they avoid animal proteins for taste or health reasons.
However, we now know that many vegetarian or vegan protein sources, such as soybeans or almonds, lead to the extinction of animals in the rainforest, are one of the reasons for the worldwide decline of bees and can have devastating consequences for the environment. Many vegetarians and so-called flexitarians say that they would rather eat animal foods from sustainable and organic farming than completely avoid animal proteins.
Countless doctors are also increasingly pointing out that a purely vegan diet can lead to bacterial colonization in the intestines, which can result in chronic intestinal problems, depression and other health problems. The vegan and vegetarian diet is therefore not suitable for everyone and is not necessarily animal-friendly or more environmentally friendly than a conscious and sustainable diet with animal protein sources.
Problems with plant-based proteins
The poor digestibility and so-called anti-nutritients in plant-based foods, such as protease inhibitors and other indigestible substances in plant-based foods, can make a purely vegetarian or vegan diet problematic. Studies have shown that substances in plant foods known as anti-nutrients can negatively affect protein metabolism in the human body. The important, essential amino acids in food cannot be fully absorbed by the body through these anti-nutrients - our protein metabolism/protein biosynthesis are inhibited.
However, consuming all 20 amino acids and in sufficient quantities is important for our general health. Animal proteins provide a higher quality of digestibility and bioavailability of these 20 amino acids and can be ideally metabolized by the body.
For this reason, from a nutritional perspective, it is recommended that a primarily vegetarian/vegan diet be partially supplemented with high-quality, digestible proteins from animal protein sources, such as salmon, dairy products and chicken.
Studies on body size
A study on the correlation of height and growth in children in connection with cow's milk and plant-based "milk drinks" found that children who did not drink cow's milk had lower body growth than those who drank cow's milk.
Since we already know that amino acids are essential for cell growth and cell renewal in our body cells, here is a scientifically based connection that should be taken into account.
Conclusion – it’s all in the mix
We humans are so-called omnivores. Over the course of evolution, our bodies have adapted as best as possible to our previous diets, which is why our bodies get by optimally with a mixture of plant and animal proteins and are designed for this. Proteins from purely plant-based sources can not only cause a deficiency of amino acids, but can also inhibit our protein metabolism through so-called anti-nutrients.
However, if we consume animal proteins in addition to vegetable proteins and these animal proteins come from sustainably produced production that works according to the creed of regenerative agriculture with a focus on animal welfare, we can also meet our need for a fair and animal-friendly environment without risking our health to set. In principle, meat consumption should always be practiced consciously and should only be done with meat from organic farming that does not neglect animal welfare.
The fact that vegan and vegetarian products such as almonds and soybeans often have a devastating impact on the environment is another argument that a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle is not necessarily more environmentally friendly. Animal and high-quality protein sources, such as milk and cheese, are not always associated with the death of an animal. Apart from that, animal proteins are of higher quality if they do not come from factory farming but from sustainable and organic farming.
We at BE THE CHANGE also speak out actively and vehemently against factory farming and for animal welfare. We source all of our ingredients and food from farms and producers who practice regenerative agriculture and focus on animal welfare. We personally selected these farms.
A purely plant-based diet that completely avoids animal proteins is not only difficult for the majority of people to implement, but can also result in health problems or lead to a deficiency in amino acids.
For this reason, a conscious diet that consists of both plant and animal proteins is recommended.