We’re seeing more and more alternative proteins on the market. But what are they – and where do they come from?
Here, we dive into the innovative world of plant-based proteins and meat alternatives – and give you the lowdown on their nutritional value.
TOP TIP: Beans, grains and pulses are a fantastic natural source of protein, fibre, and micronutrients, which we would always recommend as a meat alternative in the first instance.
SOY AND PEA PROTEIN
Protein from soy beans and peas is widely used in meat-free burgers, sausages and mince. Soy or pea protein can also be bought as a powdered supplement.
Soy and pea production is often seen as better for the environment than livestock farming, as it produces less methane. However soya takes a lot of land and energy to produce, which can be an environmental issue. Make sure the soya in your product is not from a genetically modified source.
NUTRITION: Soy and pea powders are high in protein and can therefore be a good source of protein in plant-based diets. Check the salt levels though, and look for products with amber or green nutrition levels. We also recommend eating soy beans and peas in their natural form, as they contain important nutrients and fibre.
Algae or seaweed (such as spirulina and chlorella) is increasingly being used as a source of protein. Most seaweed powders have a distinctive flavour – it can be a love-or-hate product!
Small-scale harvesting is widely seen as an environmentally good alternative to meat, although it is not known how much of an impact industrial seaweed operations could have on the wider marine environment. Scotland recently banned the mechanical dredging of kelp off the Western Isles for sustainability and biodiversity reasons.
NUTRITION: Seaweed is high in protein and contains important micronutrients – especially iodine, which contributes to the normal production of thyroid hormones and thyroid function – but is also high in salt, so it’s important to be wary of portion size. It’s a very concentrated source of iodine, so don’t eat it more than once a week. It’s also not recommended during pregnancy.
The largest tree fruit on the planet, jackfruit is a tropical fruit with a hard, green bobbly skin. Once peeled, the pale cream middle can be cooked in curries, fried like chips, or even made into a jam. The mild-tasting, fibrous flesh has a similar texture to meat, it absorbs flavours and can also be ‘pulled’ to resemble slow-cooked meat.
Jackfruit is easy to grow, survives high temperatures and is fairly drought resistant. Most of it is grown commercially in India – however, production is small, and there are not currently enough trees to supply a long-term alternative to meat.
NUTRITION: Jackfruit is low in fat and saturated fat. However, it isn’t a source of protein, so shouldn’t be a direct meat replacement. It’s a source of important micronutrients, such as vitamin C, for immune function, and potassium for maintaining blood pressure and muscle function.
Crickets, mealworms, grasshoppers and other insects have been touted as ‘superfoods’ for a few years now – high in protein, they have low environmental impact and can be farmed almost anywhere.
Insects emit fewer greenhouse gases than cattle or pigs and need less land and water than bigger livestock. However, as a young industry, there is not yet much information on the long-term impact of large-scale insect farming. There is also limited legislation and guidance around farming methods at the moment.
NUTRITION: Insects are a source of protein, fat and some micronutrients (depending on the insect). More research into human consumption of insects is needed to understand the potential health benefits.
Seitan is made from wheat gluten, which is high in protein. It has a solid, firm texture and is sold in several ‘faux meat’ products such as mince, burgers and kebabs. Although made from a natural food source, seitan can be classed as ‘highly processed’. It is also known to contain MSG and other additives that we would not promote.
NUTRITION: The nutritional profile of seitan depends on the other ingredients within each product. In the case of seitan burgers, this is often wheat flour, pea or soy protein, and flavourings. If buying a seitan product, try to choose lower-salt options, looking for a green or amber traffic light on the front of the pack.
Heme is an iron-rich molecule found in meat, which plays a large part in its flavour profile. Meat-free brands have found a way to develop the molecule using just soy and yeast to create a convincingly ‘meaty’ experience. However, heme is most commonly made by fermentation of genetically engineered yeast, which goes against the Jamie Oliver food standards as we avoid all genetically modified (GM) products.
NUTRITION: Heme burgers can be high in protein, but not as high as regular beef burgers. They also have added vitamins and minerals, in particular easily absorbed heme-iron and vitamin B12, which are important for people following a vegan or vegetarian diet. However, these burgers are currently made with coconut oil and are therefore high in saturated fat. They can also be high in salt compared to regular beef burgers.
The fleshy banana flower is starting to appear as a vegan alternative to fish. Commonly used in South-East Asia, this red pointy flower has tough outer leaves that are peeled off to reveal pale white ‘hearts’. Some say the flavour is similar to artichoke hearts – and it has the texture of cooked fish.
There is very limited information about the environmental impact of producing large-scale supply of banana blossom for consumption.
NUTRITION: Banana blossom is low in calories, carbohydrates and fat. However, it is also low in other nutrients, especially protein, and should not be considered a fish or meat replacement. Banana blossom is also often sold tinned in salty brine, so make sure you rinse it before using.
This feature has been compiled by our nutrition and technical teams, who guide the Jamie Oliver Group on all recipes and product sourcing