By Janel Ruehl & Michael Wangler, Sky Island Organics
IDYLLWILD, Calif. — At Sky Island Natural Foods, we field a lot of questions about protein. Many of our customers come in looking to change their diet for the better and seeking advice about the safest, cleanest, and highest quality products on the market. As the number of conscious consumers continues to balloon, so does awareness about many of the problems that ail our food industry and society at large. One of the greatest sources of anxiety often centers on protein: how much, where to source it, and how to diversify the kinds of protein we are consuming daily.
I took some time to sit down with Michael Wangler, owner of Sky Island Natural Foods, Sky Island Organics, and co-owner of SOL Distributors, a local organic and natural food distribution company. Combined with some independent research, we’ve put together an essential Q & A covering some of the most common and important questions about protein.
So, just how much protein does a person need to be healthy?
Officially, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is currently 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. This recommendation is set by the Food and Nutrition Board and endorsed by the FDA, CDC and USDA. What does that number mean for you as a consumer? Well, to simplify things you can use this online calculator to determine your personal RDA. For healthy adults, most people will be looking at an RDA of 30-60 grams of protein per day.
Michael Wangler: Well, this depends on the source. Many vegetarian websites will often list a lower RDA for protein intake. In his books and talks, John Robbins often promotes the idea that we are “over-proteined” in our culture. This tends to be more common in wealthier nations, where protein is just more abundant and an expectation has been established that we need a lot of it to be healthy. I believe we tend to get a lot more protein than we actually need, and this can lead to problems.
What are the health risks of too much protein?
MW: Protein takes a lot of energy to digest and it puts extra stress on your organs. Your liver, pancreas, and bladder are often affected by too much protein intake.
This 2013 German study highlights the adverse effects of excessive protein and meat consumption, including: disorders of bone and calcium homeostasis, disorders of renal function, increased cancer risk, disorders of liver function, and precipitated progression of coronary artery disease. And although not directly linked to the dietary consumption of protein, both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease have been linked to a build-up of protein in the brain, as discussed in this issue of the NIH Director’s Blog.
Why is protein important?
MW: Proteins contain amino acids, which are the building blocks for our cells. The health of our bones, muscles, and many hormones is dependent on getting enough (and the right kind) of amino acids through protein.
What’s the difference between a “complete” and “incomplete” protein?
MW: The idea is that some proteins contain all the amino acids you need in a single serving, while others only have a partial profile. All the animal-based proteins are “complete” while many plant-based proteins are “incomplete”. So then it becomes necessary to combine different sources of protein. The classic example of this is rice and beans. Together, they contain all the amino acids you need.
However, this whole concept has been proven to be a myth. As long as you are eating a diversity of foods throughout the day, you’ll get all the amino acids you need. It’s not necessary to have complete proteins at every meal.
Meat and dairy (animal-based) protein sources are often the most obvious. What should consumers know about these protein sources?
MW: Well, there is a big difference between meat and dairy proteins. If you are eating the meat of an animal, the protein is pretty easily assimilated by humans. But many, many people have problems digesting the protein in milk and milk products. I certainly do! All kinds of food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities can be traced back to dairy protein. As a kid, I developed asthma and other issues from an allergic reaction to milk protein.
If you think about it evolutionarily, humans evolved to drink human breast milk only for the first few months or years of life. Animals also evolved to drink milk from their species only during the early stages of life. In nature, it is extremely unusual to find an adult animal drinking milk. And no other species drinks the milk of a different animal!
Some types of milk products are easier to digest, due to processing which helps break down the proteins. Feta is often easier for people who struggle with dairy, as are fermented milk products like yogurt or kefir.
Where you get your meat and dairy is also extremely important. One of the myths about Sky Island Natural Foods is that we are exclusively vegan or vegetarian. In fact, we carry some of the best organic meat, dairy, and eggs around. We don’t carry fresh meat, but we do have high quality, frozen, organic meat.
I only buy meat from suppliers with the highest level of ethical standards. We try to stay away from mass-produced products, because it’s pretty much impossible to mass produce meat, eggs and dairy products ethically. Cornucopia has documented many times the way that even certified organic producers cheat. So we try to source from local farms first. The highest quality meat we carry is from Sage Mountain Farm. We source eggs from local farms, farms that I have personally visited, seen their practices, and known first-hand that they are not abusing their chickens. It can certainly be done right, but it can’t be mass-produced.
Many consumers are opting to increase the diversity of protein sources in their diet, due to the cost of high-quality meat and dairy. What are some of the best plant-based sources of protein?
MW: Nuts are extremely high in protein. Nuts and seeds are little powerhouses of protein and fat. One of our little bags of Sky Island nuts is packed with protein and fat. A 1 oz serving of nut butter can have 6-8 grams of protein!
Beans don’t have as much fat as nuts, but are loaded with protein and carbs. Beans include all the legumes like lentils, peas, and fava beans. Bean derivatives like tofu and tempeh are great sources of protein, but I also recommend that you eat these in the least processed form possible. Tofu is minimally processed, but tempeh contains the whole bean plus live active fermentation.
Grains have some protein but generally a relatively small amount as they are mostly carbs. However, some “grains” are not truly grains, but starchy seeds. Quinoa is one of the highest sources of protein of all the “grains”. Amaranth, millet, and teff are other examples of starchy seeds often sold as grains.
One source people never think of for protein are the dark leafy greens — mostly the brassica family. These don’t have as much concentrated protein, so you’ll need to eat more but they are an excellent protein source. Spirulina is 70% protein by weight and very easily assimilated by humans. Even fruits have a little protein, some more than others. Dates are the best source of fruit-based protein.
In the last few years, meat substitutes have become increasingly mainstream. What can you tell us about these options, as a protein source?
MW: Well, many of them don’t have protein! Some of the most common are tofu, tempeh, jackfruit, and seitan. Jackfruit is a fruit that has the texture of meat but no protein, because it is prepared unripe. Seitan also has an excellent meat-like texture, but it is made of vital wheat gluten which has no protein. These behave very well while you’re cooking, absorb flavors very well, but you’ll need to look elsewhere for your protein.
A lot of companies have been making vegan meat substitutes for many years now, but they are really proliferating recently! Unfortunately, they are not often organic. The number of ingredients in these products makes the price prohibitive if they are all organic. However, you can definitely find organic soy-based meat substitutes.
I always recommend that people eat these in the whole form versus the processed form. I’m kind of old school that way. If people have been eating tofu and tempeh in the most ancient vegetarian cultures around the world for centuries, they must be time-tested and proven safe.
Protein Powders and other supplements have also been gaining in popularity. What do you think about these options?
MW: Stay away from Soy Protein Isolate. Most people don’t know what Soy Protein Isolate is, but it’s probably the worst offender of all the highly-processed proteins. It is a by-product of the soy oil industry, which uses chemical solvents to separate soy oil from the bean. Before it started to be added to a whole range of food, it was regulated as a hazardous toxic waste. That is how a lot of these big industries find a way to dispose of waste materials. You can’t find an organic version of Soy Protein Isolate because it is contaminated with chemical solvents! We eliminated it in Sky Island several years ago, and do our very best to keep it off the shelves even though manufacturers find good ways of hiding it by calling it by other names. Soy Protein Isolate is toxic for other reasons as well: it has too much soy and too much protein. Excess soy can cause issues, particularly for women because of the natural estrogen it contains.
Hemp seems pretty benign, and there are lots of new blends now. Pea Protein is very popular right now. Rice, hemp, and pea is a common combination. If you have to supplement protein, these blends are a good option because you’ll get all the amino acids you need. But beware: a little packet of protein powder can contain up to 20 grams of protein, nearly half of what the government recommends in a whole day! Excessive amounts of protein will just get flushed out of your body, putting stress on your urinary tract, bladder, and liver in the process.
In reality, I don’t like any of these protein supplements. I’m a believer in the idea of getting all your nutrients through food. As long as you are eating a wide variety of foods, you shouldn’t need supplements.
As a vegetarian, do you find it difficult to get enough protein from plant sources? What are the primary protein sources for you and your family?
MW: No, I never find it challenging to get enough protein. I’ve been vegetarian for 25 years, but I’m not a strict vegetarian. The primary sources of protein for me and my family are all plant-based. We get a lot of our protein from nuts. We eat a lot of fermented bean products — a lot of tempeh, but not much tofu. We supplement with other beans. Quinoa is a staple.
We often eat quinoa minimally processed to preserve the whole seed and just take off the starchy edge. We soak it overnight, rinse it well, and then throw it into a pot of boiling water for just a couple of minutes. It’s crunchier than most people are used to, but it’s easier to digest. I occasionally eat some salmon or a little dairy at a dinner party, but we never prepare it at home. We eat eggs occasionally too, mostly during farm stays. We will often stay on farms while traveling and if they have chickens there, I’ll go out and collect the eggs myself. But I don’t eat any mass-produced eggs or dairy.
If someone wants to change up their sources of protein or reduce their consumption of meat and dairy, what essential tips would you give them?
MW: First, stay away from packages and processing. Go for the whole foods or something with very simple ingredients. Second, buy lots of leafy, green vegetables. Italian parsley has many health benefits and it is a good source of protein! Third, look for sprouted or fermented products or make your own. Sprouted or fermented protein is more bio-available, is easier to digest, and tastes better. Miso is a great fermented protein source. Always sprout your beans, nuts, and grains by soaking them overnight. Be sure to throw away the soaking water, as all the chemicals and toxins leach into the waste water. Cultures all over the world have been using these methods for centuries. Finally, look for alternative “grains” like quinoa that are actually starchy seeds, especially if you have any gluten sensitivities.
The health section of SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com is sponsored by Sky Island Organics, which has a Natural Foods store and cafe in Idyllwild. Owner, Michael Wangler is a science professor, turned organic foods advocate.