We’ve talked recently about the growing popularity of plant-based food diets. Plant-based diets encompass not only vegetarian and vegan diets, but also diets that focus on an increased consumption of plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains and numerous other foods that are made using plants as primary ingredients. Diets rich in plant-based foods deliver healthy amounts of fiber, vitamins A, C, E, K and folate, and the minerals potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and manganese.
We can thank farmers around the globe every day for growing these plant foods—but today, let’s take a deeper look into the food production practices that are bringing us more plant-based food options.
The Plant-based Burger
It may not be grilling season quite yet, but many of us enjoy a good burger any time of year. But what if you could eat a burger that contained no meat at all and still gave you the feel and taste of the traditional hamburgers you grew up eating? Fortunately for us, food producers have found a way to do just that.
You may have seen these “meat alternative” burger patties being sold in your local grocery store or served in neighborhood restaurants but wondered what was in them—or if it was worth giving them a try. Because the four main ingredients in these burgers are water, pea-protein isolate, canola oil and coconut oil, they are both vegan- and vegetarian-friendly. They’re also clever: Manufacturers use beets to help the burgers have a reddish color and “bleed” as a ground-beef burger would.
Nor will these patties let you miss out on a dose of protein if you skip the hot dogs and chicken at your next barbeque: The pea-protein isolate in plant-based burgers are at your service. Peas are legumes, which are an excellent source of protein. The pea protein found in plant-based burgers is made by extracting the soluble pea protein from yellow split peas and grinding the dried peas into a powder. As a bonus, pea protein is gluten- and lactose-free, making it a great option for individuals with those dietary restrictions. And peas are cholesterol-free and low in fat—two other ways in which pea-fueled burgers can be a healthy alternative to meat-based patties.
Note that if you’re going for a pea-protein burger more often, you may want to up your citrus intake. Plant-based foods such as peas have what’s called “non-heme iron,” which your body doesn’t absorb as well as the heme iron in pork, red meat, fish and poultry. Consuming vitamin C-rich foods such as orange juice can help increase the absorption of non-heme iron.
Milk = Casein + Whey, Not Cows?
New food production practices not only have found a way to “replace” cows for burger production—they also have found a way to make milk without the cow too. We’ve explored the production and nutrition benefits of alternative milks such as soy and almond milk in previous posts; now we’re talking about “cow-like” milk products that are dairy-free.
How is this possible? Manufacturers basically have replaced the cows with yeast that can produce the same casein and whey proteins that cows make during milk production. This lactose-free, dairy-free milk product originally was made by obtaining a strain of yeast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and inserting a cow’s DNA sequence into a specific location on the yeast in order to have the yeast produce the desired proteins. In a fermentation process, the yeast begins to make casein and whey that are molecularly identical to those found in cow’s milk. In addition, makers of the dairy-free milk boast that it has the same nutritional profile as the cow-made version, with nutrients such as vitamin D, calcium and potassium.
Putting the Egg Before the Chicken
Now that you’re on a plant-based meal roll, perhaps you’d like to try eggs that can be made without chickens! A new product that you may have seen in the egg case in some grocery stores and even served at a few restaurants is a mung bean “egg.” Mung beans don’t lay eggs, of course—but they can be processed into a substance that cooks and scrambles in a pan similarly to a chicken egg.
The mung bean is a legume that grows widely in southeast Asia, Africa, South America and Australia. Some farms in the U.S. also grow mung beans, but of the fifteen to twenty million pounds of mung beans that are consumed annually in the U.S., 75 percent is imported.
While mung bean eggs might not have the exact same nutrition and taste profiles as those of chicken eggs, like other legume-based foods they are a good source of protein, vitamins, and some minerals. Manufacturers of these “eggs” note that for the same portion size of one egg, a mung bean egg and a chicken egg have a similar protein content: 5.6g vs. 6.3g for 50g of material, respectively.
These innovative plant-based foods are helping people consume new and alternative versions of the foods they likely grew up enjoying but may now consider moving away from for various reasons. With notable nutrition benefits that are similar to those of their traditional counterparts, these new foods could be a worth a try the next time you visit the grocery store or dine out.