1. Many plant-based protein substitutes contains wheat and/or gluten
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and its related species - rye, barley, triticale and often, oats. It is responsible for the elastic texture of dough and is often used to give the final product its chewy texture and rise. Due to its complex structure, it is often used to preserve food and therefore extend its shelf life.
The problem with gluten is as a result of its particularly complex structure. In many cultures, digestive enzymes are actually unable to break the protein portion into individual (and much smaller) amino acids and it is therefore resistant to digestion. The undigested proteins then interact with our intestinal barrier and actually increase its permeability (intestinal permeability), to allow for the bigger molecules to pass through. While this may initially sound like a positive thing, as you may think nutrient absorption or digestion may be enhanced, the small intestine is actually our physical barrier to the outside world. When its integrity is compromised, it can no longer maintain control over what enters our bodies, and chaos occurs.
In the susceptible, gluten can be high inflammatory. Constant inflammation in the gut leads to intestinal permeability and potential inflammation elsewhere (or everywhere) in the body. The inflammatory effects then appear as anything from an autoimmune disease, to chronic fatigue, allergies, arthritis, psoriasis, eczema and even brain related conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. It is important to acknowledge that celiac disease and gluten intolerance can occur at any time. It is your environment that pulls the trigger on any genetic susceptibility.
Lastly, it is well known that wheat crops are one of the highest glyphosate sprayed crops. Glyphosate, the key ingredient in the herbicide Round Up, is a known carcinogen with many lawsuits against the manufacturer Monansto, now Bayer, occurring across the western world. It disrupts what is known as the shikimate pathway, an essential pathway to the production of the key amino acids, phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan production. Glyphosate also acts as an antibiotic, which significantly impacts our microbiome health.
[Editor's note: Always chat to a dietitian, nutritionist or doctor if you think you might have issues with gluten]
2. Most plant-based protein substitutes seed and/or vegetable oils
Oils such as canola, cottonseed and grapeseed oil are high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) and therefore contain multiple double bonds in their molecular structure. Their structure can be referred to as highly ‘unsaturated’, which makes them incredibly unstable in the presence of heat, light or oxygen. PUFAs therefore, turn rancid and toxic at high temperatures. The longer-term consequences of this include inflammation, atherogenic changes in the body and premature ageing. Please avoid seed and vegetable oil, opting for olive oil and small amount of grass fed butter or cold pressed coconut oil.
3. Plant protein substitutes are often low in B12
Adequate intake of B12 is essential for DNA synthesis and maintenance of myelin sheath (part of the nervous system). B12 can be stored in the liver for years, which is why many of those on a plant based diet don’t notice signs of deficiency (fatigue, shortness of breath and palpitations) for two years. That’s not to say however, that some don’t show signs of depletion much, much sooner. Some vegan foods like soy, nutritional yeast and grains are B12 fortified, but not with nearly enough to achieve the levels required or replicate the bioavailability of B12 from natural sources including liver, eggs, chicken and fish. As a side note, anyone following a pure plant-based diet, B12 supplementation is a non-negotiable and the required dosage is considerably higher than traditional recommendations, simply due to the decreased bioavailability of synthetic sources.
4. Plant protein substitutes are often not an adequate dietary iron replacement
Inadequate intake of iron can lead to varying degrees of deficiency ranging from low iron stores (indicated by low serum ferritin levels) right through to anemia. Iron is essential for the transport of oxygen to muscles and cellular energy production, processes crucial to great health, energy and endurance performance, to name a few. The concern around iron is due to the reduced bioavailability of iron from plant based sources, however a well-planned plant based diet can contain adequate iron. Instead of relying on fake meats, this can be achieved by consuming foods such beans and lentils, tofu, tempeh, broccoli and green leafy vegetables. Iron absorption can be enhanced by consuming these foods alongside vitamin C such as via pairing tempeh with broccoli, capsicum and/or cauliflower.
5. Plant protein substitutes are not necessarily better for the environment
According to independent research, some meat alternatives (cell based protein) release five times the emissions as chicken, putting their emissions just under beef. It is calculated that plant-based meat alternatives produce the same amount of emissions as chicken, approximately five times the emissions of legumes and vegetables. More research is required but regardless, when it comes to the environment it is well known fact that greenhouse gases are currently at 8% for all agriculture. It’s indisputable that the vast majority comes from industry and transportation and this should be where our focus lies. Blaming livestock or becoming vegan is not going to solve our greenhouse gas problem.
What should vegans look for in a protein source?
The top plant-based protein sources are:
- Tempeh and tofu, ensuring organic and non-GMO
- Lentils and beans such as red lentils or black beans
Other great inclusions are nuts, including almonds, walnuts, cashews and their respective butters; seeds, including chia, hemp, flax, sunflower and sesame; quinoa and green leafy vegetables, including broccoli and kale. More attention needs to be placed on dietary variation and high quality sources of protein, as excessive intake of soy or a diet of vegetables and carbohydrate simply won’t do. The reality is that animal proteins are the best sources of complete proteins, so when choosing a more plant-based diet, we need to be particularly conscious of consuming a variety of plant based protein sources to obtain our required amount of essential amino acids.