In case you didn’t hear, plants have protein. We now live in a world where “vegan” is a mainstream word, 300-lb vegan athletes exist, and most products come in the flavors of vanilla, chocolate, and vegan. It’s a cool time to be alive. It’s also confusing AF.
With a vegan/plant-based lifestyle becoming more and more possible, the conversation around protein is progressing. This article is one of a series related to the topic of protein - more specifically, what qualifies as a "good source" versus an "excellent source" of protein? Are they one-in-the same? But first, let's take a look at some common, catchy words that are starting quite the progressive commotion in food:
1. plant-based protein
2. good versus excellent source of protein
3. complete protein << We'll get to this in a later article!
An avid reader of labels, the product marketing around protein is abundant - “high in protein,” "packed with protein"... I’m doing the leg press at the gym, and the screen flashes an image of beans, reminding me they’re a “great source of protein.”
What does that even mean?
I hope by now my image choice makes sense.
Food scientist POV
From a technical standpoint – there’s a definition for that.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has guidelines pertaining to claims for product marketing (among many other things). They are found in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), specifically Title 21, Part 101, Section 54 [21CFR1010.54]. Here, specific requirements for nutrient content claims are identified. As it relates to the words “good” and “excellent,” those details are summarized as follows:
1. There is a difference between “high” and “good source” claims.
2. “High” can be alternatively expressed as “rich in,” or “excellent source of,” and is applicable if “the food contains 20 percent or more of the RDI or DRV per reference amount customarily consumed.”
3. “Good" can be alternatively expressed as "contains," or "provides,” and is applicable if “the food contains 10 to 19 percent of the RDI or the DRV per reference amount customarily consumed.”
Unpacking this some...
RDI and DRV are combined under Daily Value (DV) on food labels. The DV of protein set forward by the FDA is 50g for the average adult, based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
“50?!” you scoff!
Regardless of whether or not this is agreed upon, it is what claims are based on. ESHA, an expert resource for labeling and compliance in the food/beverage industry assembled this document with old (current) and new (effective 2020) DVs for nutritional needs.
Further unpacking and we conclude:
You don't know what you don't know.
As it relates to protein, this is just the tip of the iceberg. In future articles, I will discuss the considerations of quality and analysis as it relates to at least protein. In the meantime, in answering what do "good source," "excellent source" protein claims mean to the consumer - I would have to say, REALITY.
Realistic or not?
Based on protein quantity alone (what is called "protein content"), spirulina (a type of blue-green algae) has nearly TWICE as much protein in its powdered form as cooked, traditional cuts of chicken, pork, or steak. However, which food option is more realistic?
Reality for food product development is heavily influenced by taste. It is also influenced by parameters set forth by consumer demand, of them being TIME - hence, vast options in grab-and-go, packaged convenience.
Spirulina may be a "good source" of protein (based on Terrasoul’s 7g protein per 12g serving size), but is rather unfitting to the taste preferences of the average consumer (so far - perhaps more innovation on this to come). Outside of taste, applications in the right amounts (efficacious levels) is hard to mask in terms of flavor. For these (and other) reasons, the reality of consuming spirulina for its protein is... slim.
Frustrating, considering how highly sensible it all seems (when you look at the numbers).