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Plant-Based Proteins and the New Canadian Food Guide

(What you need to know)

The 2019 Canadian food guide recommends that Canadians prioritize plant-based proteins. Which leaves many questions for those of us who are new to consuming plant based proteins. Questions, such as:

· How do protein levels compare between plants and animals?

· How does one access plant-based proteins?

· Which plant-based proteins are the best?

· What are the environmental impacts of using plant-based verses animal protein.

What is Protein?

Before we take a deeper dive into these questions, let’s define what we are talking about. We all know we need to eat protein. We have all also been on a high protein diet to loose weight at least in our lives, but what is it about protein that makes it so great?

And, what is protein?

Protein is one of 3 macronutrients, the other two are carbohydrates and fats. Protein is crucial to the building of muscle mass. Think of body builders who eat steamed chicken and broccoli. The human body produces 11 amino acids (proteins) naturally but needs to source nine more from foods. Therefore, we eat animal and plant protein to meet our body’s physiological requirements. A gram of protein contains four calories. And it is recommended that protein provides 10 to 35 per cent of your calories each day.

Are you getting enough protein?

Probably not, as two and a half egg whites contain enough protein for a meal and not many of us are consuming 2.5 egg white omelettes for breakfast daily.

The Difference between Animal & Plant Protein

Animal Protein

Animal proteins (meat, eggs, milk), are all complete proteins, meaning they contain all the nine missing amino acids, which makes them not only delicious, but also good for you. However, the other side to that coin is that animal proteins also contain saturated fats, and have a higher concentrations of cholesterol. More and more people in our society (not only the west, this is happening in South Korea as well thanks to the introduction and popularity of western foods) are suffering from obesity, heart disease, stroke and cancer, which research has proven is linked to the over consumption of animal proteins.

Pea Powder

So, why plant protein? The primary reason is related environmental and health impacts of a animal protein based culture. Times are changing and globalization has forced all nations to consider the well being of the entire planet on top of the well being of those living within their borders, not to mention their homes. Therefore, consuming more plant-based protein has become a global movement in recent years.

The main difference between animal and plant protein is that when eating plants for their protein content, it is important to note that they are generally incomplete proteins, and if they are complete proteins, they may not be high in protein. This means that a healthy plant-based diet needs to draw on a variety of plant sources. Eating beans with rice is a good example of combining plant foods that together make a complete protein.

Which Plant based Proteins are the Best?

The best plant-based proteins are the complete ones, but they also need to be high in protein. Some examples of complete plant proteins are:

· Chia seeds are a complete protein

· Soy is a good plant-based protein

· Pea protein (often found in protein powders)

However, each has its issue, Chia seeds only contain 3 grams of protein for every tablespoon, which means you have to consume a lot. Soy has a bad reputation because of past of controversy around whether it is healthy due to high estrogen levels, and pea protein which is grown in a more traditional manner.

Water Lentils – the Best of the Best!

Water lentil powder

First, what are water lentils (Lemna)? Water lentils are a lesser known plant protein that have no relation to the legumes that we know and love to make soup with. However, like actual lentils, they can be found where ever the sun shines warmly enough.

Water Lentils have a long history in many cultures. They are high in protein and dietary fiber, and have a range of vitamins, minerals, and fats, which is why they are so popular. Water Lentils are a free-floating water plant from the Araceae family and Lemnoideae sub-family. They grow mainly by vegetative reproduction (two daughter plants grow off of an adult plant), which allows rapid colonization in calm waters.

Water Lentils Floating on a calm raft bed

Here is a list of some of the winning characteristics of water lentils:

- A better source of complete plant protein than any other: more essential amino acids and branch chain amino acids (BCAA’s) than pea & soy

- Does not contain common food allergens: soy free, lactose-free, gluten-free

- Protein is easily digestible

- Non-GMO and no solvents used

- Good source of dietary fibre

- Contains omega 3

- High in antioxidants.

- A variety of applications: easy cold-water dispersion, good water and fat absorption, pleasant texture, vibrant colour and flavour

- Low in starch and sugar

- Vegan

- High in minerals and vitamins: iron, calcium, vitamin E, vitamin A, riboflavin, and folate

- Low in oxalic acid; and

- Low carbon footprint

The above comprehensive list clearly illustrates the many benefits water lentils offer to those who consume them. In addition, unlike more traditional production of animal proteins that require large land areas, an aquaponic system can be ideal for growing water lentils. Aquaponics use 95 per cent less water than other more traditional agricultural practices, while maximizing nutrient density and minimizing the carbon footprint.

Water Lentils being Scooped out of a raft bed

In addition, growing water lentils aquaponically means that they can be grown more efficiently, in a bio-secure environment, and 365 days a year in any climate. Aquaponics and other smart-agricultural methods are instrumental in a global shift away from a dependence on animal protein based diets. By growing plant-based proteins like water lentils in highly efficient and sustainable aquaponic systems, it is possible to provide large populations with healthy, accessible, and most importantly whole plant-based proteins.

Closing Thoughts

As you can see it’s not hard to come up with a strong argument to support a plant-based diet. Environmental, health, and global factors point towards a future where animal protein based diets are uncommon. The Canadian Government understands the above, as illustrated in their 2019 Food Guide.

The Canadian government is currently investing heavily in advancing Canada’s ability to sustainably provide healthy food options. Aquaponics and other smart agricultural methods comprise a key piece of finding innovative ways to grow more with less.

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