Protein is one of three primary types of macronutrients that are essential to the general survival of the human body. Mainly composed of chains of amino acids, protein goes into every biological function. It is used to build and repair muscles, tissues and bones. It facilitates digestion and metabolism, regulates hormones, controls blood sugar levels, and boosts immunity.
Such great benefits can be obtained by eating foods rich in protein, whether they are derived from animals or plants. While the amount of protein a person needs daily differs based on age, gender, body weight, level of physical activity and overall health condition, everybody must consume protein anyway to have good health.
That being said, not many people maintain a proper protein intake. This is even more common among vegetarians and vegans who exclude foods abundant with protein, such as meat, poultry, seafood and eggs, from their diets without substituting them with other plant-based protein sources. It could be so because they do not understand how significant protein is for them or rather because they do not know of any alternatives.
In this article, we are giving you five different non-meat protein alternatives to maintain your daily required protein intake if you are a vegetarian, vegan or just someone who is looking forward to consuming less meat anyway and generally having a wider variety of protein-rich sources to choose from.
Many people mistakenly think that protein can only be found in animal-based products. Lucky for us, there are many plant-based protein sources that are accessible to almost the entire global population. Such sources are also much more affordable, richer in other nutrients, way healthier and more storable than meat. Like what, you are asking? Like legumes.
Legumes are a group of plants that are members of the Fabaceae family, more commonly known as the pea or bean family—hopefully, you remember the taxonomy hierarchy from that biology class. Unlike many other plants, legumes typically bear their seeds in pods, each usually containing multiple ones, and this is one of their many significant characteristics.
Speaking of nutritional value, legumes were found to have loads and loads of nutrients that drive indispensable benefits for the human body.
For instance, they are rich in protein, as we mentioned earlier. They are full of dietary fibres that aid in digesting and regulating blood sugar. They also have carbohydrates necessary for energy, and unsaturated fats that lower the harmful type of cholesterol and increase the good one, in addition to many vitamins, antioxidants and minerals.
Now, there are different categories of legumes, and under each, there are so many kinds of plants varying in sizes, shapes, colours and nutritional value. So, let’s explore those.
The most common, widely consumed and versatile type of legumes is beans. They are pretty affordable, too and can be cooked in a variety of ways. They make main courses, side dishes, tasty appetisers or savoury dips and can be consumed for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Under the beans umbrella, there are 15 different types, and each might even have many variants, at least one of which is available at your local grocery store. Most types of beans might share the same shape, but they have different sizes, colours and protein content.
For instance, there are the great Northern beans, flageolet beans, cannellini beans, navy beans, red beans, black beans, and kidney beans, which are also red but not as red as the red beans. Additionally, we have the famous tiny black-eyed peas. These are true beans, yet no one knows why they were called peas.
Apart from those, there also are lima beans, which are eaten raw in some regions, green beans that have tiny seeds and thick pods and mung beans. Those are green and small as well.
Chickpeas are another type of bean that is used to make the famous delicious Middle Eastern dip, hummus. Likewise, peanuts are neither peas nor nuts but beans.
Last but not least, we have soybeans. Compared to all the bean types we mentioned earlier, soybeans have the highest protein content, around 36.5 grams per 100 grams. This is equivalent to the protein found in six large eggs!
Speaking of soybeans, they are widespread in Southeast Asia, specifically China, Japan and South Korea. They are used to make a variety of healthy protein-rich products, which are essential in most vegetarian diets, such as soy milk that is used to make tofu, tempeh, edamame, natto, soy nuts, and soy sauce.
Another famous type of legume is lentils. They are small seeds, having the shape of a lens and like beans, they come in different colours. Lentils are low in fat and high in protein and fibre and generally do not take as much time to cook as beans. Only 20 or 30 minutes at the maximum are enough for them to become fully cooked and tender.
Speaking of that, one of the famous lentil dishes is the lentil soup. It is often consumed in the Middle East, Mediterranean countries, as well as India, especially in winter.
Unlike beans, however, there are only four types of lentils. Brown lentils have a mild flavour and are most commonly used to make stews and soups. In Egypt, this type is one of the main ingredients of Koshary, the country’s national dish. Every 100 grams of brown lentils have nine grams of protein.
Green or French lentils are more firm in texture, tasting like pepper and are often used in various salads. They have almost the same amount of protein as the brown lentils.
Red lentils and yellow lentils are quite similar to one another. They have a bit of a sweet taste and are also used to make soups. Red lentils have as much protein as the green and brown lentils. Yellow lentils, on the other hand, have the highest protein content. Every 100 grams of yellow lentils have 22.5 grams of protein.
The third common type of legume is peas. There is only one type of peas with three variants based on how the peas are harvested.
The first one is the common garden peas. These are harvested when the seeds inside the pods become mature. This is the most common type of peas and is often cooked with carrots in many regions. There are about five grams of protein in every 100 grams of garden peas.
Then there are the snap peas or sugar peas. These are usually grown for both the pod and the seeds, and both of them are consumed. Field peas, on the other hand, are grown for the tiny dried seeds inside, and those are consumed along with the flat pod. This type has the largest protein content, where 100 grams account for 8.5 grams of protein.
2. Nuts, Seeds and Grains
Besides the many different kinds of legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains are also common healthy foods. They are full of nutrients and a great source of protein and healthy fats to make up for the eggs that vegans so firmly exclude from their diets. In addition to that, nuts are abundant with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that provide the body with the necessary energy to function properly.
Common types of nuts include almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios, cashews, pecans and macadamia nuts. Pistachios and almonds are the richest in protein, with 20 grams and 21 grams of protein per 100 grams of each, respectively.
Macadamia nuts, on the other hand, have the lowest protein content, with only eight grams per 100 grams. They are also the most expensive and have a shell that is the hardest to crack!
Seeds are those small edible things we find inside different parts of flowering plants. Like nuts, they are nutrient-dense, full of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, besides a bunch of vitamins and minerals. The most common types of seeds are sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds and hemp seeds.
An amount of 100 grams of hemp seeds has 31.6 grams of protein. The same amount of sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds give 21 grams, 19 and 18 grams of protein each.
Another significant protein source is grains, the small, tiny edible seeds taken from various plants. Although grains could be some of the most consumed types of foods, not many people know how nutritious they are, especially when it comes to their protein content.
For instance, rice is a staple food in most Latin American, Asian and Middle Eastern countries. It comes in many varieties. It is cooked in so many different ways and makes so many main dishes in so many cuisines.
Although rice is mainly characterised by its high carbohydrate content, as it is full of starch, it also has a reasonable amount of protein that assists in maintaining good health. That said, rice must be eaten moderately to avoid weight gain.
Wheat and corn are also famous grains and two that are highly consumed on a daily basis almost all over the world. They are used to make flour which, in turn, is used to make bread, different types of pasta and all kinds of bakeries there are.
Wheat has a higher content of protein, with 13.2 grams of protein found in every 100 grams of the grain. The same amount of corn, however, gives 3.2 grams of protein.
Oats are another grain that happens to look so much like wheat but does not come from wheat, unlike what many people think. Oats have been on the rise recently, with many people incorporating them into their healthy diets. They are most commonly used to make oatmeal that is consumed for breakfast and oat flour for healthier bakery.
Oats are incredibly nutritious and have large amounts of fibre, carbohydrates and protein. Every 100 grams of oats have around 17 grams of protein. This is equivalent to the protein content found in three eggs or 175 grams of Oikos Greek yoghurt.
Other famous types of protein-rich grains include quinoa, rye, millet and barley.
3. Plant-Based Meat
Let’s face it: the taste of meat is so distinct and cannot be substituted.
Many of those who become vegetarians or vegans most probably do not do so because they hate the taste of meat but for many other causes instead. In fact, many committed vegetarians might be missing meat at times, but their commitment stops them from consuming it, leaving them to fantasise about a cheeseburger that does not incorporate any meat.
Luckily for them, the fantasy just became a reality.
Beyond Meat is an American food company that produces meat substitutes made from plants and other non-animal protein sources. They are mainly made from peas, beans, and rice, in addition to a bunch of other ingredients. They do not have any gluten, genetically modified organisms, or bioengineered ingredients.
For instance, Beyond Meat makes burgers, sausages, meatballs, ground beef and even steak. All of those have the same taste, texture, appearance and protein content as traditional meat but with zero meat. So the Beyond Meat plant-based sausages look exactly like real-meat sausages.
Such products are not only good for vegetarians who miss the taste of meat but also for non-vegetarians who want to reduce their meat consumption to have a better health and life.
The Impossible Burger
The Impossible Burger is a famous product in the US developed by Impossible Foods. This is another food technology company that, like Beyond Meat, develops plant-based substitutes for meat products.
The Impossible Burger is their most famous product, which looks exactly like a real beef burger yet is completely made from plants. It also uses other ingredients such as soy protein concentrate, sunflower oil, potato protein, yeast extract, salt, water, and coconut oil, in addition to some vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12, vitamin B6, vitamin B1, zinc, and niacin.
To make the Impossible Burger even have that bloody-red colour and flavour as meat, the company adds a molecule called heme. Heme is found in all living organisms but is abundant in animal muscle tissues. Yet the company extracts it from soybeans and uses it in the Impossible Burger to make it look exactly like a real beef burger.
4. Fungi-Based Meat
Like the Impossible Burger, mycoprotein is a product that looks like meat and has a high protein content. But it is neither meat nor protein derived from plants but instead from fungi. To understand this better, let’s go back again to the taxonomy hierarchy.
All living organisms are classified into six different kingdoms. We are familiar with the animalia and plantae kingdoms that incorporate all extant and extinct animals and plants. The four remaining kingdoms include all else that is neither an animal nor a plant. One of those kingdoms is called fungi.
Simply put, the fungi kingdom includes any microorganisms that have no roots, stems, leaves or chlorophyll. They live like parasites, decomposing dead organisms, but they are not, nor are they bacteria. Most fungi, such as yeasts, can only be seen under a microscope, but some are visible, like rusts. Others are edible, such as mushrooms!
Fungi were found to be rich in protein. This means they can be consumed as food by humans, as long as they are not poisonous, of course. So, to make the best out of this advantage, mycoprotein came into existence.
Fusarium venenatum (do not try to pronounce it) is one of those edible protein-rich fungi. A UK food trademark called Quorn started producing meat substitutes using Fusarium venenatum. They grow the fungus in a somewhat controlled environment and then process it in a way that gives it the same protein texture found in meat.
The resultant product is a single-celled protein that they named mycoprotein. It is used with other ingredients to make a variety of meat-substituting products, from burgers and meatballs to wings, patties and fillets.
Again, all of these products have the same texture and a high protein count like that of meat without having any of it, making a perfect meat alternative for vegetarians and vegans.
Mycoprotein has been available for consumption since 1985 and has gained huge popularity. However, it is worth mentioning that anyone trying products containing mycoprotein must check all the other ingredients well, for they may cause allergic reactions.
5. Lab-Grown Meat
The fifth and last non-meat protein alternative we have today is still not available for consumption and there might be some controversy surrounding it. That said, it is still worth mentioning anyway. We are talking about the new lab-grown meat!
It does sound counterintuitive, we know. But for some time now, scientists have been growing meat in laboratories. They use a type of cellular agriculture and tissue engineering to grow cells taken from animals in nutrient-rich solutions, which allow them to develop into muscle tissues. The resultant meat then looks exactly like animal-based meat.
Although this approach is still in development, which means this lab-grown meat is not yet commercially available, maybe when it gets approved, it would make a good meat source for those who quit eating meat for reasons related to animal welfare and climate change.
Whether you are a vegetarian, vegan, or just someone wanting to reduce their meat intake, you still need to consume enough protein to ensure your body is able to build and repair your muscles and support your overall health. Get inspired by the many recipes we have on our website to include the non-meat alternatives we mentioned in this article in your diet and make great, highly nutritious and super tasty dishes.