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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The Meat-Eater's Guide to Crafting a Meatless Meal, pt. 3

I'm going to take a bit of a detour in this post, as I feel I've overlooked something that's important when it comes to getting protein in our diets. This is the digestibility of different protein sources, how well the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein that cannot be synthesized by the human body and must come from food) survive the digestion process. This is often referred to as the bioavailability of protein.

You've probably heard this already -- animal sources of protein (the flesh as well as eggs and milk products) are more accessible to the human body, while plant sources of protein (beans, seeds, nuts, grains, vegetable matter) are less accessible. Part of this is the amino acid composition of the plant material. You've probably heard that if you eat beans, you need to combine them with a grain in order to get the full spectrum of essential amino acids. In addition, plant foods contain certain anti-nutrients, naturally-occurring compounds which can block the absorption of minerals and amino acids. The result of both of these conditions is that plant protein is less bioavailable than animal protein.

Beyond this simplified distinction between animal and plant protein, within both the animal and plant kingdoms, the resulting foods each have their own unique rating of bioavailability for protein. I'm borrowing the following table and linking to the site (just under the tables) from where it came. This site has a reader-friendly article that explains all of this further if you want additional information.

The writer of the article explains that the DIAAS Protein Quality Assessment is the most recent and considered the most accurate method of rating protein availability. A score greater than 100 is considered "high quality." A score between 75 and 100 is considered "good quality/medium." And a score below 75 is considered "low quality" protein. As you can see, all of the animal sources of protein score in the "high" range. 

By the way, milk protein concentrate is primarily casein, the protein building block in milk. Some people are allergic to or have a sensitivity to the casein found in cow's milk. Goat's milk and sheep's milk do not contain the same problematic form of casein, and are therefore more easily tolerated. Whey protein is a by-product of yogurt and cheesemaking. Even though both casein and whey sound like they are each only part of or a component of milk, they both contain all of the essential amino acids.

Looking at the table for plant sources of protein, you can see that the only plant source that comes close to animal sources is soybeans. Whole soybeans contain all of the essential amino acids, likely the main reason they have been featured so heavily in many vegetarian meat analogues. The scores fall to soy protein (I think they mean soy protein isolate, which is what TVP is made from), pea protein (often found in protein supplement powders), and chickpeas/garbanzo beans, all in the medium range. Yellow lentils and pinto beans are just below the threshold for a medium score.

While this assessment looks grim, for those of us who may find themselves eating a whole lot less meat in the near future, here's the good news. This scoring is based on the quantity of essential amino acids in individual animal or plant foods and doesn't take into consideration the practice of combining different types of protein foods, such as eating beans with a grain, beans with eggs, grains and cheese, etc. 

According to this article, It's true that plant foods may lose about 10 to 20% of their protein availability due to those anti-nutrients and fiber. However, I would guess that most of us are capable of eating far more grams of protein than what meets the minimum for health. The other concern is the essential amino acid leucine. While plant foods like lentils do contain leucine, they don't contain as much of the essential amino acid as animal foods do. However, this is easily remedied by adding a small amount of an animal protein source, such as a bit of cheese, a little milk, or an egg to the meal that is prepared primarily using plant protein. Here are a couple of easy examples:
  • peanut butter on bread, with a glass of cow's milk on the side
  • refried beans in a flour tortilla for a burrito, with some cheese added to the filling
  • TVP spaghetti (as I used for illustration in the first post on this topic), topped with Parmesan cheese
  • or, one of my favorites, huevos rancheros, adding beans to the skillet along with the corn tortilla, then topped with an egg
The same article also mentions that of all of the plant foods, soy foods contain the highest amount of leucine. This would include tofu, soy milk, soy protein isolate (TVP and powders to add to shakes), tempeh, and edamame. In addition, quinoa and buckwheat (grains or pseudo-grains) also contain enough of all nine essential amino acids for the human body.

Finally, one last table, just for reference. This one readily identifies which foods to pair together to get the complete amino acid set for your body to use as protein when only consuming plant sources.
We often hear about dishes that use complementary amino acids, such as beans and rice or peanut butter on whole-grain bread. This table shows which essential amino acid is deficient for the plant protein food, and in which foods to find it. Basically, beans go with grains, nuts, seeds, or corn. And vegetables (such as Brussel sprouts, asparagus, broccoli, avocado) find their lacking amino acid in grains, nuts, or seeds, but not in beans.

All of this goes back to what I said on day one of this topic, that I try to use 3 or 4 different sources of protein in every meatless meal that I prepare for the family. The TVP spaghetti meal -- pasta (grain), TVP (bean), Parmesan cheese (dairy), sourdough toast (grain). Okay, so the pasta and toast both came from grains. 

With the Cabbage Patch Soup meal mentioned yesterday -- lentils (bean), Parmesan cheese (dairy), Yorkshire pudding (egg, dairy, grain), pumpkin pie (egg, dairy, grain).

Here's another meal, last night's Cinco de Mayo feast. My daughter made baked nachos, using corn tortillas (corn/grain), refried pintos (bean), cheddar cheese (dairy), TVP (bean), yogurt (dairy), and about 4 ounces, total, of ground beef (animal). That amount of beef meant that each of us ate 1 ounce of meat. In our house, we not only eat meatless meals, but we also eat less-meat meals. I sometimes use just a bit of meat in a meal to add to the satiety of a dish. This is another way that we deal with having less meat available, for whatever reason. For dessert, we had a Nestle Tollhouse cake (grain).

For additional information:

The first article does a good job of explaining how protein foods are rated for their usability in the human body. The second article of the two provides an alternate viewpoint to the first article, in that the author of the second sees protein foods not as isolated individual foods, but as part of a larger diet that combines and complements various individual foods into a whole. Both are good reading and helped me understand how to make meatless and less-meat eating better for my family's health.


  1. Hi Lili,
    I started a post yesterday and as I hit "publish" it disappeared...well, anyway, I was going to say that you should be a professor at your local college. You are a wealth of good information beyond a normal person. Apply for a job and just show them your blog as part of your interview. They would be foolish not to hire you!

    What I was going to say yesterday was that I never heard of the meat "fillers" you talked about but I never eat fast food either so I was never concerned what is in the food. I don't even buy packaged dinners from the store either.

    Another thing about the meat and what is happening with that in the future. I noticed that chicken is difficult to get as all the shelves are empty. Pork and beef are available at their normal high prices but nothing extra high. I hate buying meat at those prices and often wait until I see a discounted meat price but lately I haven't seen that. I bought a couple of chuck roasts and some pork steaks yesterday. I will say that my budget is not so tight so I will pay the higher price to get meat. I suppose we'll see what happens if/when the prices start to go up due to not being able to process meat so readily in the future. We also eat beef rarely and sometimes I have to be deliberate about making sure we eat some red meat.

    Yesterday my daughter wanted lomo saltado which is beef, onions, tomatoes with brown rice on the side as well as french fries on the side. It is easy to make and rather cheap. I used a chuck roast that I sliced up and tenderized and we had a huge pan of beef, onions and tomatoes. It was very good and something we should do more often.

    Daughter is home from Honduras after being rushed home due to border closings and the potential danger in the country. Schools are closed just like here in the US so she came home on one of the few flights out of the country and it took 2 days to get home. But now she teaches remotely from the comfort of our home. She is done with self quarantine and is healthy.


    1. Hi Alice,
      first, I'm so glad your daughter is home and is healthy. I'm sure that you are very relieved and happy to have her around. Two days to get home! She must have been exhausted, The lomo saltado sounds delicious!

      I think the meat shortages will tend to be regional for a while. I've been able to get whole chickens, but not chicken leg quarters. Chicken prices are a little high for this time of year in my area. Ground beef prices have gone up about 50-75 cents/lb just since the first week of March. I would have thought that bacon prices would have been higher, but on my Walmart's delivery/pick-up website, the price on bacon is still within reasonable for my expectations (not cheap at all, but bacon hasn't been cheap in 20 years). I don't use a lot of pork products in my cooking, just ham, breakfast sausage and bacon for occasional treats.

      I was thinking about chicken the other day and thinking maybe we'll see whole chickens more plentifully than chicken parts. It seems to me that whole chickens could be processed faster and with less labor than parts.

      Since I'm not shopping in-store for the time being, I don't have any access to discounted meats or other foods. This has wreaked havoc with my grocery budget and I've now diverted more money from other areas to groceries. But the way I see it is we're not going on vacation or eating out/getting take-out, even just getting a cup of coffee any time in the near future. We'll come out more ahead financially I think (mostly because there are no vacations for the next year for us).

  2. Lili, wow. You never cease to amaze me with your analytical mind! I love it! I so appreciate how you have gathered all of this "meaty" (pun intended) information and synthesized it in a way we can all use and understand. I'm pretty sure you weren't a food science major in school, yet this is quite the comprehensive tutorial regarding all the considerations re: meatless meals. I had always heard beans plus rice made for a complete protein, but had no idea re: all of these other factors to consider.

    We have done meatless Monday (or Tues, or Friday or whenever) meals before, but now I'm wondering how complete they were. I am always mindful of hitting all the food groups needed for a healthy meal, but that typically includes some meat often in a less-meat fashion. This series provides great information for me going forward. Now when I prepare a meatless meal, I can see how it shapes up in all the critical nutritional components. Thank you for all you do for us here and the information you impart!

    1. I think less meat meals, adding in some grains and beans or dairy/eggs, can make-up for a lot of the bioavailability issues one would have with vegetarian cooking. With even just a small amount of meat, the body can build more protein from the vegetarian amino acids. Plus, the small amount of meat also enhances absorption of iron and zinc that may be present in plant foods.

      I think in the long run, that it is the overall eating patterns that make the difference. So, for those meals that my family doesn't get enough protein, I just don't sweat it. We all have our occasional meal of something super simple, like a bowl of popcorn, or cereal, or ice cream.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. This has been a great series of articles, Lili.

    One thing you can do to increase the bioavailability of the nutrients in grains, beans and nuts is to soak them before using, as traditional societies did. I soak dried beans and grains and raw nuts in warm water, either with vinegar, baking soda or salt, depending on the type, for 12 to 24 hours.

    For beans, add a spoonful of vinegar to the soaking water for kidney beans and black beans. For all other type of beans, add a little baking soda. After the soaking period, rinse them and cook in plain water or broth. If I prepare them this way, I don't have any of the unpleasant side effects some people have with beans.

    For grains, I soak them with an acid (like yogurt or apple cider vinegar) before cooking.

    If you are using whole wheat flour to make bread, there are various recipes for soaked flour loaves.

    For raw nuts, soak them in salted water, and then rinse well and dry them in a low oven.

    This takes more time in the kitchen of course, but it's an easy way to increase the nutrition in foods you already have on hand.

    - Tina

    1. Hi Tina,
      thank you for this information! I use a lot of raw almonds (snacks and in cooking), so I'm going to try soaking in salt water overnight, then drying before use.
      I'll check out those links. Thanks!

    2. Lynn from NC Outer BanksMay 7, 2020 at 4:53 PM

      Lynn again here...Back when I had a cheap supplier of pecans and had pounds and pounds of raw pecans in the freezer, I would fix them as Tina suggested, but for different reasons. After soaking them in salt water (didn't rinse, just drained them) and drying (parching) them in a slow oven, we added butter. Oh, these salted pecans are so good!This is how my mother always makes them for Christmas and I believe they are the family's very favorite snack, maybe even more so than all the sweets. Good to know we were enhancing their nutrition as well!

    3. Hi Lynn,
      those salted pecans sound delicious. I'm going to keep this in mind for the holidays! Thank you!


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