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Exploring Protein Alternatives Beyond Meat

August 11, 2020

Spending on food is behind only housing and transportation in America. With tightening budgets, changes in the food supply chain and rising food costs, choices at the supermarket may be narrow. 

Consumers facing rising costs for meat, poultry and eggs might be in the market for lower-cost alternatives. By using meat as an accompaniment instead of the main focus of the meal and seeking out new recipes that use less meat, consumers can incorporate more budget-friendly plant proteins into their weekly menus. Selecting plant-based options enhances nutrition and long-term health by adding protein as well as fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients to the diet. Consider these options: 


Legumes are plants that have pods containing seeds, such as beans, peas, lentils, soybeans and peanuts. Seeds of legumes open along a seam revealing two similar sides. The wide variety in legumes provides for versatile low-cost protein possibilities. 

Black, red, pinto or pink — no matter the bean of choice, it is a nutritious option. Beans, which are high in fiber, protein and B vitamins, help the body feel full. A half cup of beans has 6-7 grams of protein and easily can be incorporated into existing recipes, such as stretching ground beef with the addition of black beans in tacos. Add small pink beans to pasta salad or use chickpeas (garbanzo beans) to spruce up a green salad or make into hummus for a dip or spread. Experiment with preparing beans from dry using the quick-soak method (boil for 1 minute; then let stand 1 hour) or soak overnight. Dump the soaking water before cooking to reduce gas-producing carbohydrates that leach into the water. 

Lentils, a small, high-protein legume, cook up quickly, and many types don’t require soaking (check label to confirm). Lentils come in a variety of colors like red, brown and yellow and are versatile for use in soups, stews and salads. 

Usually identified as a starchy vegetable, green peas also serve as a great source of protein. At 4-5 grams per ½ cup, adding peas pumps up the nutrition on any dish. Add to pasta, a cold salad or enjoy in a cup of pea soup.

Soybeans, known as a complete protein, contain all the amino acids the body needs. Like other legumes, soybeans are a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals, and also contain isoflavones that help to lower cholesterol. Edamame, or soybeans in the pod, can be purchased in the green husk or already shelled. Edamame serves as a great low-carb, high-protein appetizer or snack. Simply boil the pods for 15-20 minutes and pop the beans out of the husk. Shelled beans also may be used in soups and salads or as a side dish.

Tempeh, made from fermented soybeans, delivers the additional health benefit of a probiotic. With a meaty texture and nutty taste, tempeh is delicious in stir fries, chili and even sandwiches. Make sure to use sauces or marinade because tempeh absorbs the flavors. Find it in the produce section at the supermarket. 

What About Meat Alternatives?

There are many plant-based meat lookalikes such as soy hot dogs or burgers with the look and texture of red meat. The higher cost for these premium foods may be the reason they remain in supply on store shelves. These products typically have a combination of soy, wheat or plant proteins. Although the products contain protein, many are highly processed and high in sodium. 

Hidden ‘Hitters’

Although not as high in protein as legumes, many other foods such as nuts, seeds, nut butters, grains and even vegetables like spinach and broccoli add protein to the diet. Combining these foods throughout the day has an additive effect for protein and other nutrients. Add almonds to oatmeal for breakfast, chia to a smoothie snack or try a spinach salad with chickpeas and sunflower seeds for lunch. 

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