Can Plant Protein Serve as a Full Dietary Alternative to Animal Protein?

Protein crystals grown in space. Credits: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA-MSFC) - NASA

The global market for protein ingredients has grown significantly in the last few years. In 2019, it was valued at USD 38 billion, and from 2020 to 2027, it is expected to grow at a rate of 9.1%. This is partially due to general growth of the food industry as a result of the global population increase. Yet it is also closely tied with a rising interest in alternative types of protein, as traditional methods for producing protein ingredients cannot sustain an ever-increasing population. Not all proteins are created equal, and there are big differences between those from animals and those from plants, both in terms of their impact on human health and the health of our planet. Plant proteins have a markedly smaller ecological footprint and can now be produced at competitive prices using cutting-edge technologies. But can they really serve as a full dietary alternative to animal protein, including in Mana? In light of the current trends, it is worth taking a closer look.

Protein is a nutrient that nearly everyone is familiar with. It is most famous for helping grow muscles, but it also contributes to the maintenance of healthy bones, skin, hair, and a number of other physiological processes, such as energy production and transport of oxygen throughout the body. There is no question that to be optimally healthy, you need enough protein.

But proteins vary highly in quality, in particular in 3 areas: their essential amino acid content, digestibility, and the “package” they come in, i.e. what we consume alongside the protein. In the text that follows, we will examine how plant protein compares to animal protein in each of these areas, as well as how Mana measures up.

Essential amino acid content

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and are essential for nearly all metabolic processes in the body. Among other things, they are necessary for the formation and renewal of body tissues, they facilitate transport of substances throughout the body, and they serve as a source of energy.

Some amino acids can be synthesized by the body, but others are essential, meaning we must get them through our diet. These include valine, leucine, isoleucine, threonine, methionine, lysine, phenylalanine, tryptophan, and histidine. A protein that contains all the essential amino acids in balanced amounts is called “complete.”

In nature, the only complete, standalone sources of protein are of animal origin, such as meat, fish, and eggs. However, when combined, plant sources can also comprise a complete protein. In fact, at the cellular level, your body does not know the difference.

More good news for vegans and vegetarians is that, in order for the right sources of plant protein to be “complete,” they do not even need to be combined in the same meal, just throughout the same day. (Proteins should be eaten regularly throughout the day, as the “pool” of amino acids stored in our bodies depletes quickly.)

Excellent sources of plant protein include peas, chickpeas, beans, soy, peanut butter, nuts, oats, whole wheat bread, and quinoa. As long as herbivores add proper variety to their diets, there is no need to worry about not getting enough amino acids.

In Mana, the protein is 100% plant-based and delivers a complete and balanced amino acid spectrum comparable to that of whey—the highest-quality source of protein in sports nutrition. Mana’s protein comes from soy, peas, oats, rice, hemp, and algae.

Digestibility

Proteins are assigned digestibility scores based on type (either a PDCAAS, i.e. protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score, or more recently a DIAAS, i.e. digestible indispensable amino acid score; the latter is more reflective of a protein’s actual utilization). The highest possible score is 1.0. Plant proteins have lower scores than animal proteins, usually ranging from 0.6 to 0.9 (soy protein isolate has a score of 0.9).

For this reason, vegans and vegetarians are advised to increase their protein intake beyond that which is normally recommended. Nevertheless, the required increase is relatively small. For example, the difference can easily be accounted for with a protein-rich snack or two throughout the day. This is true for athletes as well.

Due to the complex and carefully chosen combination of proteins in Mana, we can assume that its DIAAS score is higher than 0.9. And because it is purely plant-based, we add extra protein to it. One serving of ManaPowder has 21 g while one serving of ManaDrink has 17 g. A daily portion of either of these delivers nearly double the daily requirement for the average, 155-pound adult.

It is also worth noting that the development and refinement of processing techniques plays a key role in improving the digestibility of plant proteins. For instance, the generally higher fiber content of plant proteins, or the hulls of nuts, seeds, and legumes, make them harder to digest.

But the influence of these factors can be reduced via isolation technologies. This is why ManaDrink and ManaPowder contain a mixture of protein isolates (from soy and peas) and extracts (from rice, hemp, oats, and algae).

Protein “packages”

When we consume protein, we also consume everything around it, such as the fats, the fiber, and the sodium. So, extremely important when evaluating the quality of any given protein is to look at the “package” it comes in. While a slice of ham may be extremely high-protein, it is packed with sodium. While steaks are excellent sources of protein, they are unhealthily high in saturated fat and cholesterol.

Lentils, on the other hand, are rich in protein, fiber, potassium, and other micronutrients and phytonutrients, and have almost no saturated fat or sodium. Existing research indicates that the “packages” we consume rather than the amounts of protein we consume are what make the difference for our health.

This is where plant protein has a real advantage over animal protein. The fat, for example, that comes in plant protein packages is more unsaturated and therefore helps reduce LDL cholesterol levels (LDL is the “bad” cholesterol); this in turn reduces the risk of heart disease. The same appears to be true of diabetes. In a 20-year study conducted on women, published in 2008 by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it was found that diets high in plant fats and proteins were associated with lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

Again for cancer, the source of protein (or protein package) matters more than its quality. A 2014 study published by the International Journal of Cancer indicated that every additional daily serving of red meat consumed by female adolescents increased their risk of breast cancer by as much as 13%. Consuming more plant protein is thus a sure way to reduce intake of the potentially harmful substances that so often come in animal protein packages. 

Mana is an excellent all-plant protein package. It contains a mixture of healthy, primarily unsaturated fats from canola oil, algae oil, coconut oil, sunflower oil, flaxseed oil, and oat oil, plus phospholipids from soy lecithin. This unique mixture of oils delivers ALA, EPA, and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, as well as important fat-soluble vitamins and valuable phytonutrients like vitamin E, phytosterols, and carotenoids.

It has the optimal ratio of sodium and potassium, it has a low glycemic index and so may be used by diabetics (see more info here), and it is high-protein with a complete amino acid spectrum. It also contains all b-group vitamins for the proper utilization of these amino acids, and is rich in iron and vegan-friendly B12—nutrients that are frequently lacking in plant-based diets.

Conclusion

As the global population continues to grow, so will the global industry for protein ingredients. Yet it is well-documented that production of animal protein puts a far higher burden on the environment than production of plant protein. (For example, it takes feeding 6 kg of plant protein to livestock to produce 1 kg of high-quality animal protein.) This fact has naturally drawn greater attention to plant protein alternatives, but it also begs the question: can plant protein fully replace animal protein in our diets?

The answer is yes. Although it is harder to find a single, balanced source of amino acids in the plant kingdom, this can easily be compensated for by consuming a variety of plant proteins. Although animal protein tends to be more digestible than plant protein, this can easily be compensated for with a moderate increase in daily plant protein intake.

And without question, consumption of plant proteins reduces the risk of so many other diseases associated with high consumption of other unhealthy nutrients that come in animal protein packages, like saturated fat and sodium. These statements are true for those with standard caloric needs, as well as those with higher caloric needs, like athletes.

Mana is the perfect source of plant protein and all other nutrients your body needs to be healthy. When combined, its ingredients deliver a complete and balanced spectrum of amino acids, its mixture of protein isolates and extracts—together with its higher-than-average protein content—allows for high digestibility, and it contains no unnecessary substances that “bioaccumulate” in the body, such as sodium or saturated fat.

For these reasons, Mana is the ultimate plant-based alternative to any or every meal.

Sources: 

[1] Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/

[2] B P. Ismail, L. Senaratne-Lenagala, A. Stube, A. Brackenridge (2020) Protein demand: review of plant and animal proteins used in alternative protein product development and production. Animal Frontiers, Volume 10, Issue 4. https://academic.oup.com/af/article/10/4/53/5943509

[3] L. Herreman, P. Nommensen, B. Pennings. M. C. Laus (2020) Comprehensive overview of the quality of plant‐ And animal‐sourced proteins based on the digestible indispensable amino acid score. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/fsn3.1809

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[5] Harvard Health Publishing (2013) Getting your protein from plants. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/getting-your-protein-from-plants

[6] F. Watanabe, Y. Yabuta, T. Bito, F. Teng (2014) Vitamin B12-Containing Plant Food Sources for Vegetarians. 
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[7] World Health Organization. Protein and Amino Acid Requirements in Human Nutrition. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/43411/WHO_TRS_935_eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[8] M. A. Kniskern, C. S. Johnston (2011) Protein dietary reference intakes may be inadequate for vegetarians if low amounts of animal protein are consumed. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21167687/

[9]  M. J. Brown (2017) Animal vs. Plant Protein — What's the Difference? https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/animal-vs-plant-protein#TOC_TITLE_HDR_3

[10] S. R. Hertzler, J. C. Lieblein-Boff, M. Weiler, and C. Allgeier (2020) Plant Proteins: Assessing Their Nutritional Quality and Effects on Health and Physical Function. PDF here.
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