The Not-So Starving Student—Alternative Proteins

At some point you may have heard of the enormous waste associated with producing agriculture.  While plant products drain resources such as water, land and fertilizer, livestock require an exhaustive list of resources from nutrients to a heated barn in the winter.  The energy consumption doesn’t stop there.  The production of livestock is only part of the story, the second half of the story involves meat processing, which requires an ever-greater amount of labor and machinery.  Upon close examination, this multi-billion-dollar industry isn’t as sustainable as we might think.  For one, the exploding growth of the middle class in rapidly developing nations places greater demands on meat protein.  One example of this growth is seen in East and Southern Africa where an improvement in quality of life has shown growth in meat consumption (Tschirley, 2015).  Consequently, the question becomes, “Will we have enough resources to support this need?”  Moreover, will it be environmentally possible to satiate the world’s love affair with meat protein?

Of course, this isn’t to persuade you to opt for a vegan diet (nor will it), but certainly gets many agricultural scientists to think about protein substitution.  The concept revolves around shifting our daily protein consumption from livestock to plant proteins, or the less palatable option, insects.  Insects are known for their incredible high protein levels that exceed the protein per gram compared to traditional meat-based proteins.  The argument for substitutes of meat protein is not simply a nutritious one, but one that involves sustainability.  Compared to farming livestock, both insects and protein-rich plants produce less emissions and use less resources, which in turn means reduced costs as well (Richter, 2015).

Interestingly, while we quote protein substitution to be a novel idea intended to solve our protein problems, it has been in place for longer than we may think.  For instance, countries such as South America and Eastern Asia have had insects on their menu for many generations.  Elsewhere, where meat is scarce, plant proteins from lentils to chickpeas have been an important source of protein.

So perhaps a future of reduced meat protein intake might be a reality.  But how nutritious is it for us? If we could overcome our psychological barriers associated with consuming insects or the more acceptable alternative, plant-based proteins, how do they compare with traditional meats like chicken, beef and fish?

For one, research has shown the cardiovascular benefits of plant-based proteins in lieu of red and white meats (Richter, 2015).  These types of proteins have lower saturated fat content helping individuals better maintain their heart health.  On the other hand, insect protein varies based on the insect.  Specifically, a study nutritional study found crickets, palm weevil larvae and mealscore significantly healthier than beef and chicken in overall nutrient value.  However, little is known regarding the million of other insect species that could potentially be a dinner option.

Knowing all that, might you be looking for a few non-traditional sources of protein?

Coconut worms make a popular snack in Vietnam

This pure cricket powder helps athletes supplement their protein intake

In Japan, insects are a delicacy and make an usual sushi platter

Lentils and chickpeas are among the highest plant-based proteins available


Richter, C.  K., Skulas-Ray, A.  C., Champagne, C.  M., & Kris-Etherton, P.  M.  (2015).  Plant protein and animal proteins: do they differentially affect cardiovascular disease risk?.  Advances in nutrition, 6(6), 712-728.
Tschirley, D., Reardon, T., Dolislager, M., & Snyder, J.  (2015).  The rise of a middle class in East and Southern Africa: Implications for food system transformation.  Journal of International Development, 27(5), 628-646.
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