5 new protein sources you may not have come across before
Analysis: from seaweed to duckweed, here are 5 sustainably sourced alternative proteins to investigate. This article by Laura Healy, Teagasc PhD student and Walsh Scholar in Food Chemistry and Technology at TU Dublin, first published on RTÉ Brainstorm recently
Protein's image has changed over the last few decades. From meaty meals and egg white omelettes to powders for gym bulking, protein is once again adapting to market demand. This time around, the demand is for sustainably sourced "alternative" proteins. There are a number of sources in the race for first place on our shelves.
Before we jump into revolutionising our food systems, we must ask how are we going to produce enough high quality food without damaging the environment in the process? A follow up question might well be 'why don’t we just make more of the protein we already consume, like beef, chicken, soy beans and eggs?'
But the environmental toll of our current food production systems is being uncovered, and the reality is ugly. To develop new ways to produce quality food, we must start with the environment at the centre, as a key player in its design. Below are some of the next protein production systems being touted for the job.
Seaweed is not necessarily a new source of food for humans, but it has gone out of fashion. The sea plant is seeing a revival in its incorporation into other foods such as burgers, bread, cheese and coffee.
Interestingly, while being hailed one of the front-runners in our search for the next alternative protein source, the magic of seaweed lies in its vitamin and mineral profiles. Depending on the species, seaweeds are abundant in minerals like zinc, magnesium, iodine and selenium.
On top of this, seaweed aquaculture is a sustainable food system, so you can rest assured you are supporting the environment when purchasing a seaweed-based product. Keep in mind to support Irish companies where farmers work diligently alongside the natural ecosystem, ensuring their seaweed farms are contributing to the wellbeing of the marine environment.
The bottom line: seaweed offers access to important micronutrients like zinc and iodine that are crucial for human health.
If you've ever eaten anything from the Quorn brand, you’ve already consumed this "new and alternative" type of protein. While we may not traditionally think of mushrooms (or mycoprotein) as a source of protein, they are actually excellent sources, with contents varying from 15 to 35% depending on the species.
Like other food, mushrooms are best consumed in their natural and fresh form. The consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with higher rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and all-cause mortality. Try to buy unprocessed forms of mushroom, and, if you are feeling even more adventurous, Ireland is an excellent place to forage for your own fungi, which is as close to fresh as you’ll get!
The bottom line: mushrooms are a promising source of protein with a rich nutrient profile to match, but should be eaten in their unprocessed form to get the most out of them
While not the most appetising option for many - and under debate as a valid food source in the vegan community - we are nonetheless seeing insect-based foods swarming our shelves. The pros are undeniable: insects are fast growing, food waste recyclers (thus reducing the impact of landfills on the environment) that can be farmed vertically (therefore taking up less green space) and are highly nutritious.
READ: Who wants an insect energy bar or bug burger for lunch?
High in protein, insects are making their way into a number of food products such as pasta, burgers and bread. The aim of insect processors seems to be to hide the key ingredient by blending it into foods we are already comfortable eating – let's see how the market responds to their efforts! If you want to see more bug options in the supermarket aisles, support these products in your next shop.
The bottom line: the next few years will determine if insect-based products become permanent fixtures on our shelves or if the demand for insects will be greater in the animal and fish feed markets.
Solar foods have developed a way of farming microscopic protein out of thin air. The technology uses air, electricity and fermentation to grow microorganisms, which are then processed to make a dry powder called Solein, which is up to 70% protein. The product is an all-rounder that shouldn't insult anyone, as it claims to be: "vegan", "non-dairy", "non-GMO", "soy and gluten-free", with "no religious dietary restrictions".
But objections could be made based on the apparent lack of need for such a product. It could be argued that if we managed well the food that we have (by reducing food waste, farming meat more sustainably, eating less meat and thus redirecting protein crops to more humans, we would not need technology such as that used to produce Solein. Although, for research purposes the idea is very exciting and who knows, we may need it in the future.
The bottom line: the most environmentally lightweight protein production system currently in existence, but may not need to be in widespread use until the apocalypse.
If you have a pond, you are likely unknowingly growing one of the next protein sources in your back garden. The plant knocks all other plant-based contenders out of the running with a protein content of up to 45% and has been approved as a novel food for human consumption by the European Food Safety Authority.
Duckweed is rich in phytochemicals (beneficial chemicals that come from plants) such as lutein and β-carotene, the consumption of which is positively associated with reduced risk of many chronic diseases. The plant cleans water naturally and can prevent eutrophication (an excess of nutrients in our water which has detrimental impacts on aquatic life). This talent can be used for good, by cleaning waste water streams for safe disposal into our water bodies while rapidly growing a high-protein crop. Research into this is underway by UCC's Marcel Jansen, who is a passionate duckweed champion.
The bottom line: duckweed is a sustainable high-protein plant with super water cleaning abilities, keep your eyes peeled for the plant sometimes called "water-lentils".
This article first appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm. See Link to original article: https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2022/0906/1320808-alternative-protein-sources-se/aweed-mushrooms-duckweed-insects-microorganisms
About the author: Laura Healy is a Teagasc PhD student and Walsh Scholar in Food Chemistry and Technology at TU Dublin
If you liked this article you might also like to read How can we enjoy a tasty, fatty meal without weight gain? which was also published here on Teagasc Daily.