The pros and cons of alternative proteins

There are pros and cons, of course, in the case of each of the alternative sources of protein we have described. Here we separate them into three classes: nutrition, safety and sustainability.

Edible Insects

Food container with whole, roasted edible insects (mealworms, buffaloworms, grasshoppers, crickets) and dip at a street-food market in Germany

Roasted insects at a street market. Thomas W. Fiege Source

1. Nutrition

Pros Cons
Good sources of protein and fat Nutritional value varies depending on the species, developmental stage and type of feed
Meet essential amino acids requirements Contain chitin which reduces protein digestibility
Rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, such as zinc, iron and B vitamins Still unknown how processing and cooking techniques affect their nutritional value

2. Safety

Pros Cons
Safe for consumption when reared in a controlled environment Possibility of allergy in people allergic to crustaceans
Wild insects can be made safe for consumption after processing Wild insects may be contaminated with pesticides, toxins or pathogens

3. Sustainability

Pros Cons
Require less feed than livestock and can grow on biowaste Still unclear of environmental impact of large-scale production
Rearing can potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions Research still needs to identify efficient species and biowaste sources to use in rearing
Can be used in animal feed reducing the need for crop production Production is still expensive due to high manual labour

Cultured meat

petri dish containing what looks like a normal burger, uncooked

The world’s first cultured hamburger. World Economic Forum Source

1. Nutrition

Pros Cons
Nutritional composition can be tailored to create healthier and personalised products Complex meat products such as steak will be hard to mimic in terms of structure and taste

2. Safety

Pros Cons
Food-borne diseases can be eliminated and fewer antimicrobials used Safety checks are required before being approved and reaching the market

3. Sustainability

Pros Cons
Require less land and water to be produced Environmental impact of large-scale production still unclear
Relieve the burden of producing crops for feed Projected high energy use and cost when produced on a large-scale
Decrease the need for livestock production Still not ‘animal-free’ due to use of animal serum in some culture media

Algae

glass bowl containing wet green leaves and close-up of a hand holding some

Soaked miyeok (seaweed) by박미희 Source

1. Nutrition

Pros Cons
Good sources of protein, polyunsaturated fatty acids and fibre Nutritional value varies depending on the species, growth conditions, harvest location and season
Rich in bioactive peptides and antioxidants such as sterols and carotenoids Low digestibility in raw and unprocessed state
One of the few vegetable sources of vitamin B12 and iodine  

2. Safety

Pros Cons
Safe for consumption when grown in a controlled environment Harvested algae may be contaminated with heavy metals, such as cadmium and arsenic

3. Sustainability

Pros Cons
Higher yield per unit area than other high-protein crops Sustainability depends on the type of production and species
Can grow on biowaste and with no use of fertilisers Efficiency of aquaculture systems needs to be improved
Cultivating results in a lower carbon footprint than growing plants and meat Production systems reliant on the environment are cheaper but less efficient

Plant-based protein

Blue bowl and blue spoon both containing soy beans

Image by ally j from Pixabay Source

1. Nutrition

Pros Cons
Legumes and cereals combined can provide comparable protein content to meat Anti-nutrients such as lectins and phytates in plants reduce protein digestibility and the bioavailability of micronutrients
Usually contain more fibre and less saturated fat and cholesterol than meat Sophisticated meat analogues may contain high amounts of added fat and sodium

2. Safety

Pros Cons
Considered safe for consumption when cooked or processed Possibility of allergy in people allergic to plant proteins such as soy or gluten

3. Sustainability

Pros Cons
Lower carbon footprint and land use compared with animal rearing Highly processed products, such as meat substitutes, may require high energy costs

Can you think of additional pros and cons for these alternative proteins? Which most significantly affects the likelihood of trying them in your diet?

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Engaging with Controversies in the Food System

EIT Food