A lot of foods fall into the category of plant proteins, more than one might think. This includes beans, tofu, lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, nuts, potatoes, chia seeds and certain vegetables, to name a handful. Using these plant-based proteins, it's possible to get all of the nutrient the human body needs, but it does take knowing what to look for and choosing foods mindfully.
What Is Plant Protein?
Plant protein is the protein found in plants only, not from fish or animals. It can include a variety of foods, though mainly plant proteins are found in nuts (both raw and roasted), legumes, seeds and beans. Potatoes and some other vegetables also contain protein, including broccoli, kale, asparagus and mushrooms. Another good food that's filled with plant protein is the nutrient-dense Ezekiel bread, which is made from barley, wheat, lentils, millet, and spelt.
Processed foods such as tempeh, tofu and texturize vegetable protein (TVP) also contain protein and are often used as a substitute for meat. These ingredients are made with soy beans, which boast between 68 and 22 grams of protein per cup, all depending on how they are cooked. Seitan is another protein-packed processed food that's made from spiced wheat gluten. It's slightly rubbery when cold and works well pan fried, grilled and baked.
What to Do With Plant Protein
Cooks can utilize plant proteins in many ways, all depending on which plant protein is being featured. For the processed foods such as tofu, tempeh and seitan, make sure to cook with plenty of other flavors. None of these ingredients taste like much on their own, but they are great for soaking in sauces and spices. Each is best grilled, pan-fried and in a stir-fry. Tofu can be blended down into a creamy-like texture. Seitan and tempeh both hold the shape well and are good cut and cubed in put into casseroles, chile, tacos, sandwiches and breakfast burritos.
Individual vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes, pulses, nuts and beans have more natural flavor. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be cooked well or paired with other ingredients and spices. In the legume and bean category the varieties with the highest amount of protein include soy beans, cranberry beans, lentils, split peas, kidney beans, white beans, lima beans and pinto beans. Most of these foods work well in soups and stews, though also as a main course or side dish. Seeds and nuts offer a protein boost too and can be sprinkled on or combined with just about any food or, in the case of sunflower or squash seeds, eaten roasted and whole as a snack. For nuts its best to eat them roasted.
Plenty of vegetables have protein too. Think corn, peas, mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and asparagus. These are the ones with the highest amount of protein, though other veggies also contain it. Any vegetable should be cooked to the eater's liking. Most can be grilled, roasted, pan fried, sautéed or eaten raw, and all can be boiled. Combine high-protein vegetables with beans and/or legumes for a fulfilling meal.
Plant Protein Vs. Animal Protein
The biggest difference between these two proteins is one comes from plants and the other is solely from animals, including meat, fish, eggs and dairy. The latter of the two is a complete protein no matter the source, but plant proteins are not always compete. Soy beans and quinoa are both complete proteins, which means they contain all the amino acids humans need to maintain a healthy diet.
Animal proteins also offer more vitamin B12, zinc, vitamin D and Docosahexaenoic acid (a.k.a. omega-3 fatty acid associated with brain health) by weight. So one need only a small serving of animal protein to equal a large serving of plant protein. However, while animal proteins have the aforementioned attributes, many varieties also contain saturated fat and have higher levels of cholesterol. Eating an only or mostly plant-based diet has been linked to better weight management, lower cholesterol and regulated blood pressure.
Plant Protein Recipes
Because there are so many types of plant proteins, there are also a lot of recipes. These three dishes are a good way to start and showcase the vast range of food choices in this category.
Where to Buy Plant Protein
Today many grocery stores carry plant proteins, in many different forms. Beans, legumes and quinoa can be bought in bulk at some grocery stores, and found canned and in bags in all of them. Nuts too are easy to find in bulk bins or already portioned out. Pre-packaged tofu, tempeh and seitan reside in the cooler in the vegetarian section. Some specialty markets, often Asian markets, sell fresh tofu, a real treat if you can find it. The protein-packed vegetables mentioned are available at just about every supermarket around the country, though some are seasonal. Of course, online is always an option too.
Storage of plant protein depends on which food is on hand. Dried beans and legumes like cool, dry spots in the pantry, and canned beans can go just about anywhere as long as it's not too hot or in direct sunlight. Most vegetables can be kept in the refrigerator, whole and unwashed. Chilled processed soy bean products like tofu and tempeh should be kept in the fridge as well. Nuts like bags or jars, as long as they are dry and in a temperate place.
Nutrition and Benefits
Eating plant plant proteins instead of animal proteins has been linked to better weight management, lower cholesterol and regulated blood pressure. Plants have less calories than meat, dairy and eggs, and most, save for nuts and some seeds, have little to no fat.
Meat is not the only way to get protein, and those that eschew it can easily be satisfied with plant proteins. It takes planning since not all plant proteins offer the complete array of amino acids and vitamins the body needs. But, when it comes to the question of protein, it's not hard to get enough through beans, legumes, nuts and vegetables.
- Legumes: Lentils, split peas, chickpeas (also called garbanzo bean), mung beans, peanuts
- Beans: All beans contain a lot of protein, but the one with the most is the soy bean
- Nuts: Brazil nut, almond, walnut, cashew, pecan, pistachio, hazelnut
- Processed: Tofu, seitan, tempeh, texturized vegetable protein (TVP)
- Seeds: Hemp, chia, squash, sunflower, flax, sesame, poppy
- Vegetables: Potato, Brussels sprouts, corn, green peas, broccoli, avocado, asparagus, spinach, broccoli rabe