Protein is an essential building block in all living organisms. Plants can produce protein, but animals, including humans, must get protein from their diets to survive.
Humans can effectively digest protein from many sources, including animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria. Traditional diets around the world have typically included a range of protein sources available in the local ecological zone, circumscribed by weather events, seasonal availability, cultural preferences, and personal habits. Diets in many regions remained relatively consistent throughout much of human history, with significant changes occurring only as a result of natural disasters, social upheaval, colonization, or migration. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, however, technological and geopolitical changes have revolutionized food production and consumption. Over the last 100 years, agriculture and diets worldwide have changed much more rapidly and profoundly than at any time in history, and so have global patterns of protein consumption.
In high-income nations, dietary protein is now predominantly supplied by industrially produced animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs. The practice of large-scale industrial animal agriculture harms animals, damages human health, and degrades the environment. Producing protein from conventionally farmed animals is particularly problematic as global demand continues to rise, worsening environmental and social consequences.
Alternative proteins offer solutions for many of these intersecting problems in food production. From traditional legumes and fungi to novel food products like plant-based meats, alternative proteins are increasingly common in meals around the world.
Alternatives to meat and other animal products have been around for millennia in the form of protein-rich foods like soybeans, peas, and nuts. However, alternative protein can also refer to more recent innovations in mimicking foods that are traditionally animal-based, including eggs, dairy, and different types of meat. From plant-based eggs to cultivated meats produced from cultured animal cells, the alternative protein industry has been attracting growing attention from consumers and investors alike. Replacing animal products produced conventionally with alternative proteins would reduce animal exploitation and curb the environmental impacts of food production.
There are many different reasons why someone might choose alternative proteins. Certain religious beliefs, for example, encourage plant-based diets and others compel adherents to abstain from eating specific types of meat, such as pork or beef.
Other people may turn to alternatives for health reasons, especially in high-income countries where contemporary diets are rich in animal products. For example, diets in many higher-income countries such as the United States and Australia feature high intake of red meat and other cholesterol-rich foods such as cheese and eggs—which raise the risk of developing poor health conditions. Alternative proteins can offer people a way to reap the health benefits of reducing their animal protein intake without sacrificing the enjoyment derived from eating meat and other animal products.
Alternative proteins can also appeal to people who seek a more ethical diet. Concerns about the environment, climate change, and animal welfare are often cited as reasons for reducing animal products.
Food access is highly unequal in the US, but for consumers who have easy access to a range of food sources, selecting products that come from plant sources rather than from animal sources helps build the market for alternative products.
Protein is a macronutrient made of polymers of amino acids and is a key building block for the bodies of living organisms. Because protein exists in a wide range of organisms, alternative protein products can be created by rearranging amino acid profiles of raw materials to create products that look, taste, and feel like meat.
There are many alternative protein sources from legumes, nuts, seeds, and other plants that are consumed on their own or used to make alternative protein products, including:
- Fava beans
Fungi are also used as alternative protein sources and can be beneficial for vegan diets:
- Trumpet, button, and shiitake mushrooms are commonly used in a variety of dishes and can contain high levels of protein, and some varieties contain vitamin B12, a nutrient that is predominantly found in animal products.
- Fusarium venenatum (microfungus), with fibers that imitate the texture of animal muscle, is the main ingredient of some popular plant-based food products.
- Koji, dubbed the national fungi of Japan, has traditionally been used to make soy sauces and miso, but it is also the base for a new range of alternative meat products, including plant-based pork chops and scallops.
Insects and other arthropods have been eaten by humans worldwide for millennia yet have not featured in the diets of wealthy nations until recently. Recent launches of products made from insects have surfaced complex environmental, economic, and ethical questions surrounding the industrial production of insect protein. While these products offer an alternative that has certain benefits over industrially raised meat or dairy, the deep environmental and ethical concerns of insect cultivation reduce the suitability of insect protein as a replacement for animal protein.
TYPES OF ALTERNATIVE PROTEIN PRODUCTS
There is an incredible variety of alternative protein products and their methods of production, with more in development every year as consumer interest grows. Microbial fermentation, a technique that is thousands of years old, makes use of bacteria such as Lactobacillus to chemically transform raw food materials, for example, fermenting soybeans to create tempeh.
More recent techniques include precision fermentation, in which microorganisms are programmed to produce organic molecules such as sugars and proteins as ingredients for alternative food products. Impossible Foods’ heme protein, which famously gives its plant-based burgers the appearance of “bleeding,” is produced using precision fermentation.
Cultivated meat is another category of alternative protein made from real animal cells without the cruelty of raising animals in confinement, leading to slaughter. Cells taken in a small biopsy from a living animal are cultivated in a growth medium that provides nutrients to the cells as they proliferate. The resulting meat is suitable for a variety of formats, from hamburger patties to fish fillets. These slaughter-free meat products are created with a fraction of the natural resource use and none of the cruelty involved in producing conventional animal meats.
Alternative proteins can also be created by recombining protein structures that exist naturally in plants. For example, protein can be extracted from peas by separating the naturally occurring oils and carbohydrates while leaving behind a protein isolate. Pea protein isolate is used by companies including Beyond Meat and Good Catch Foods. Seitan, made from wheat gluten, is another form of plant protein used in meat alternatives, including Very Good Butchers. Products that use fungi are also increasingly common. Meati uses a biomass fermentation process to create meat-like products using mycelium, while Prime Roots uses the koji fungus.
Unprocessed or minimally processed foods like vegetables, cooked beans, or wholegrain rice tend to be most beneficial for health. The nutritional value of alternative protein products varies based on the raw ingredients, the degree of processing, and any additives or other ingredients that may be present to enrich foods with vitamins and minerals or to influence the taste or texture of the final product (such as spices, shelf stabilizers, and coloring agents).
Tempeh is an example of an alternative protein that is minimally processed and packed with nutrients, including iron, calcium, and magnesium. It also contains prebiotics from the fermentation process, which can help maintain beneficial gut flora.
Fungus-derived mycoprotein, being among the more recent plant-based alternative protein innovations, carries many benefits, including potentially lowering blood cholesterol levels and providing a bioavailable source of essential amino acids.
While plant-based meat products like the Impossible Burger are processed foods and can contain high levels of sodium and saturated fat, research has found that mycoprotein products are beneficial for reducing cardiovascular risk compared to conventional meat consumption.
Alternative proteins do not involve the use of any antibiotics—drugs that are routinely fed to animals in industrial feeding operations to promote rapid growth. Widespread overuse of these powerful medicines for non-therapeutic purposes weakens their effectiveness against infections by breeding antibiotic resistance. Continued proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria could lead to the end of effective antibiotic medications, making common human infections and diseases far harder to treat. Unless consumption of conventionally produced animal protein decreases, antibiotic resistance will continue to pose a worsening threat to public health.
Educating the US public on the animal, human, and environmental consequences of conventionally produced animal protein can be a contentious issue, given the widespread societal reluctance to reduce consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs. Yet, engagement with this uncomfortable issue is needed across the non-governmental sector to promote food system transformation. Taking action to transform the food system is one of the most effective strategies for achieving a healthier, more compassionate, and more equitable world. NGOs focused on the environment, anti-racism, labor organizing, and public health have ample reason to ally with proponents of food systems change.
Animal agriculture is one of the most polluting industries on the planet. Taking action against industrial agriculture and high production and consumption of animal products is critically important for environmental protection.
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are major point sources for air and water pollution throughout the US, largely because of the animal manure they generate. CAFO barns are designed to house hundreds, and often thousands, of animals at a single time and can produce millions of tons of waste per year. By one Environmental Protection Agency estimate, CAFOs generate up to twenty times more waste than the entire national human population combined. Information on CAFOs is often kept intentionally hidden from the federal government, making official figures highly conservative estimates.
The link between climate change and animal agriculture is also becoming more widely understood and publicly accepted. Environmental groups have long decried the oil and gas industry, yet animal agriculture produces greenhouse gas emissions at rates comparable to the entire global transportation sector. Without action to transform industrial agriculture and reduce industrial animal production and consumption, global greenhouse gas reduction targets to limit climate warming will be impossible to achieve.
From its inception, the US food system has been built for the benefit of white producers and consumers. Our food system encompasses a long history of land-based and food-based exploitation, inequality, and racism that continues to this day in unequal rates of farm ownership and differential access to both healthy food and farm financial support. Taking action to replace conventional industrial agriculture—especially industrial animal agriculture—with more equitable and more sustainable alternative food production is a critical area for progress on anti-racism.
Intentional societal disinvestment in lower-income BIPOC communities has left many communities without purchasing power or accessible retail locations for obtaining healthier alternatives to cheap and plentiful industrial meat and processed foods. These foods contribute to poorer health outcomes in BIPOC communities compared to communities with wider access to healthy foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables.
Environmental racism in the food system occurs when the unpleasant or dangerous impacts from industrial animal farming are located within marginalized communities and out of sight from wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods. A disproportionate share of the air and water pollution from industrial farming affects lower-income and BIPOC[i] communities nearby industrial farms. Hog farms in Iowa and North Carolina exemplify the kind of environmental racism that is perpetuated by animal agriculture, with CAFOs burdening nearby residents with chronic health damage that lower-income status prevents them from escaping. The resulting long-term exposure to toxic compounds found in animal waste not only causes a range of health issues in these communities but can result in lowered property values and decreased economic opportunities, further exacerbating inequality.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the injustices of the meatpacking industry. Workers were not provided with safe working conditions, which led to these facilities becoming viral hotspots. Yet this is just one of the many ways that animal agriculture is harmful to workers, and food system transformation could bring simultaneous benefits for labor advocacy.
Meatpacking plants are among the most dangerous US workplaces since processing line speeds compel workers to move quickly, leading to injuries such as cuts and amputations, and in some cases, fatalities. The poor air quality inside CAFOs can cause debilitating respiratory diseases. Farmworkers and meatpackers are some of the least unionized labor groups in the country, yet they are among the lowest-paid, endure extremely physically demanding labor conditions, and are provided with inadequate benefits. Promoting food system transformation including a focus on alternative proteins could reduce reliance upon forms of agriculture that exploit workers and should be an important part of the national conversation about workers’ rights.
Aside from the environmental pollution burden shouldered disproportionately by BIPOC communities, conventional meat and dairy have a host of additional negative health impacts on consumers. Diets rich in animal products contribute to high cholesterol, heart disease, and inflammation associated with autoimmune disease. Alternative proteins can help curb these impacts.
Alternative proteins also lessen exposure to antibiotic drug residues in food. Plant-based proteins can contain no drug residues whatsoever. Cultivated meat, made of real animal cells, does not require antibiotics during any stage of production because of the sterilized conditions in which cells are grown. Because antibiotic resistance is considered to be one of the greatest health threats currently faced by humanity, public health groups are well-positioned to amplify the antibiotic-free benefits of alternative proteins.
THE Systemic POTENTIAL OF ALTERNATIVE PROTEINS
Alternative proteins can help advance systemic change by making progress on many intersecting issues at once while disrupting the conventional industrial food system and its overreliance on animal exploitation. Supporting the growth of the alternative protein industry can hasten the transition away from industrial agriculture and the industrial production of animals.
Rather than separately approaching interrelated food system issues such as environmental impacts or systemic racism, working together at the intersection of these issues to replace the industrial food system can provide simultaneous improvements on environmental protection, racial justice, public health, economic inequality, animal rights, and workers’ rights.
Labor organizing and animal protection find shared purpose advocating for reduced processing line speeds within poultry slaughterhouses, a factor that increases painful and unnecessary injuries to both workers and birds.
Deep connections exist between the solutions for reforming the industrial food system and priorities for reducing public health disparities, with higher rates of food-related diseases such as diabetes being more prevalent within lower-income Black and Latinx communities that are unfairly targeted by processed-food marketing. The environmental justice movement recognizes the inextricable connections between racial and economic discrimination and pollution, working, for example, to halt construction of new CAFOs, compel existing CAFOs to operate in ways that are less harmful to human health, and establish anti-racist food policy that benefits BIPOC communities rather than multinational corporations.
Unified food transformation messaging across the NGO realm and greater multisectoral support for the adoption of alternative proteins can combine to achieve food system transformation for the benefit of all animals, people, and the environment.
[i] BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. We recognize this serious drawback and use the term only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.
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