7 min
Steakholder Foods
Nov 2, 2022

Animal Protein vs. Plant Protein

Explore the nutritional aspects and implications of animal protein, plant protein, and the emerging field of cultured meat.

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Regular protein consumption is essential to our health and there is a variety to take into serious consideration. In this post, we will compare animal protein to plant protein and see how cultured meat measures up as a viable protein source.    

Plant protein vs. animal protein vs. cultured meat 

Our cells require protein in order to perform important tasks. The human body can generate some of the protein it needs on its own, but it must also receive protein through food consumption. This is the only way we can obtain the nine essential amino acids which we cannot produce by ourselves in a sufficient manner.  

Plant protein vs. animal protein vs. cultured meat 

Here are three main protein-source categories that can keep us healthy and energized:

  1. Animal products, such as meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy, give us the complete protein we need with all nine essential amino acids.  
  2. Do plants have protein? Legumes, nuts, quinoa, soy products, and even some high-protein vegetables such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, and other leafy greens are all sources of protein. While these non-animal protein sources are appealing to vegetarians and vegans, some do not contain all nine essential amino acids. And some plant protein sources have relatively small amounts of protein. But with the fiber, vitamins and minerals such foods provide, they should be included in any balanced, healthy diet — not just vegetarian or vegan.  
  3. Very soon, cultured meat, or meat grown from animal stem cells, will usher in a new food revolution and the beginning of a global shift in the meat industry. Cultured meat, also known as cultivated meat, will offer the world a new way of getting animal protein (with all essential amino acids) but without having to farm and slaughter animals and without the downsides to the planet.

What are amino acids, and why are they important?  

Protein is made up of different sequences of amino acids which our bodies need in order to function properly and stay healthy. We can generate most of them ourselves. What we can’t product ourselves — known as the nine essential amino acids — are critical for maintaining basic human functions, such as tissue growth, digestion, muscle development, hormone generation, and immune system functionality. These nine essential amino acids must enter our bodies via food.  

How does plant protein compare to animal protein in terms of amino acids?

Most plant-based protein does not contain all nine essential amino acids. But researchers have shown that consuming a wide variety of plant-based protein sources can sufficiently provide all essential amino acids required for a healthy body. There are however some plant-based foods that do contain all nine essential amino acids: Soy, quinoa, buckwheat, rice and beans together, pita and hummus together — just to name a few.  

It is important to note that while all plants do indeed have protein, you’ll have to put a lot more broccoli on your plate to measure up protein-wise to a piece of meat. However, other than amino acids, the nutritional benefits of broccoli and other yummy plants, such as fiber, vitamins and minerals, surpass those you’ll get from meat.  

plant-based foods can provide complete proteins

The problems with animal protein?

If you eat beef, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy, most likely you are getting the complete protein you need with all nine essential amino acids. But it is important to note that there is a key distinction between fresh produce and processed meat and seafood, the latter of which supply the protein you need but also comes with artificial ingredients, sugar, sodium, and trans fats.  

Beef lovers in particular should check out studies that cite too much red meat eaten too often as potentially increasing the chances of poor cardiovascular health, strokes and even cancer.  

Humanity’s love affair with animal protein is fueling growing environmental crises around the globe. This reality, in part, is motivating more people to adopt vegetarian or vegan diets to help reduce our reliance on the conventional meat and dairy industries which, according to Nature Food, are the source of 57% percent of all greenhouse gas emissions derived from food production. Even non-vegetarians and non-vegans are reducing their meat, poultry and dairy intake based on similar issues. Animal welfare also tops the list of concerns among these groups. If you’re of like mind on the issues and are leaning toward vegetarianism, veganism or cutting down on meat, you will be happy to know that plenty of delicious protein alternatives do in fact exist.   

Plant-based diets aren’t without risk either

Professional athletes, such as the Williams sisters, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Mike Tyson, and Novak Djokovic, maintain plant-based diets. As far as protein goes, if it’s good enough for athletes, it’s good for anybody, right? But with plant-based diets, unlike with meat diets, you must always be specifically aware of what you’re eating to make sure you are getting complete proteins. You also need to be mindful that your daily protein intake matches the recommended amounts. This can be a bit more challenging with plants than with animal-based food, yet it certainly can be done.  

The key to maintaining a successful plant-protein intake is to diversify. Sticking to the same plant protein sources may lead to a deficiency in one or more essential amino acids. But with some planning and increased awareness, you can reduce this risk to ensure your body gets the complete protein it needs. 

So, is plant protein good for you? Is it enough? The answer is a resounding yes. But just remember; it's always better to consume fresh plant-based food rather than food that is processed, pre-cooked or refined. 

Can animal-based protein be vegan?

Will vegans who secretly miss the meat-eating experience (and the easy protein fix) soon be able to flock back to meat? The answer is a resounding, yes! The burgeoning meat industry is ripe for a change and that change will come in the form of cultivated meat. Thanks to the science involved, we hope in the coming years to witness the end of industrial animal farming and the beginning of a safer and more ethical way to consume meat.
You won’t find dangerous bacteria, growth hormones or antibiotics in cultivated meat. And you won’t see overcrowded feedlots full of cattle on the way to slaughter. There are plenty of meat eaters who share similar values with the vegan community. Cultivated meat should allow all sides to come together around the dinner table. 

variety of healthy proteins

So, what is the best way to get your protein?

Since we now know that plant-based foods can provide complete proteins, in the end, the choice really all boils down to culture, personal preferences, dietary needs; and now, for a growing segment of the population, ethical principles and sustainability.

But despite global campaigns and even an appeal from the UN for people to switch to a plant-based diet, the reality is that most people will continue eating meat — and not because of a lack of awareness of the issues, and not because they don’t care about the future of the planet or the problems with factory farming.  

The reason cultivated meat is being talked about as the future of food is that it offers a complete protein solution to individuals who refuse to wean themselves off of meat and to nations around the world who are scrambling to strengthen their food security, live up to climate obligations, and conserve land and water resources.    

As a vegan, cultivated meat should give you hope that, in a global and systematic way, the world will finally come around to adopting the values and principles that align with your conscience and beliefs. And if you still have dreams of a good old fashion juicy steak or a 100% beef burger grilled to perfection, you should be counting the days and minutes until the regulatory pathways open up that will allow you to race to your nearest meat counter or favorite restaurant.  

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