What is Sustainable Protein?

“But how do you get enough protein?”

It’s a familiar question to anyone who follows a diet that isn’t, well, traditional. That can include plant-based, vegetarian (ovo or otherwise), pescatarian, and so on. And, it’s a great question. Where do you get your protein?

I’d never chastise anyone for such an inquisitive and valid question. Instead, I’d welcome it. It is my wish for more people to become aware of what they put into their bodies. Only then can informed-decisions be reached. Part of the informed decision-making process innately involves asking questions and challenging the status quo.

However, for every good question, it’s equally important to have a good answer. Luckily, that’s easy. Sustainable protein sources are readily available. I’ll cover several here, breaking down the protein count for each. Where possible, I’ll also skim the surface of the respective carbon impact for these food types and give pointers about what to look for and what to avoid. Whether you’re an eco-friendly diet advocate looking to learn more about sustainable protein, or simply curious what the hype’s all about, I hope this article will be of help to you.

Why Sustainable Protein?

To start off with, context is important. After all, why sustainable protein? To clarify, “sustainable” is here measured in terms of CO2 emissions per serving.

In comparison to other protein sources, meat-based proteins are relatively unsustainable. Starting a high-level, we see that vegetables, fruit, and grains collectively contribute to 11.5% of greenhouse gases based on average food consumption. Comparatively, meat is responsible for almost half (47.6%) of all food-related greenhouse gases, making it significantly less eco-friendly:

Figure_1_Greenhouse Gases from Average Food Consumption

The factors that contribute to meat-based protein’s lacking sustainability vary. Furthermore, not all meat proteins equally contribute to  emissions. For example, ruminant livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats) contributed to 167 million metric tons (mmt) in COemissions in 2015, in part due to methane output as a biproduct of their digestion (in other words, don’t stand behind a cow). However, this doesn’t apply across the board. Other meat types, such as chicken, contribute significantly less to overall emissions.

The figure below illustrates how protein sources, such as beef, cheese, and pork, disproportionately contribute to more CO2 emissions:

Figure_2_Pounds of CO2e per Serving

It’s clear which foods are the biggest contributors to emission. Equally, however, it’s clear there are numerous sources of low-emission protein. Using the above figure, I’ll next dive into the food sources that tip towards the sustainable end of the spectrum.

Eco-friendly Protein Sources

Without further adieu, here are your eco-friendly protein sources illustrated graphically:

Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 10.17.07 PM

This graph shows us two things. One, it ranks the protein levels of food sources from highest to lowest. Second, it shows the respective emission output per serving of that particular food (measured by kg/CO2 emissions).

As you’d intuit, vegetables rank better in terms of low emissions compared to the meat options. Foods that offer an optimal balance of protein and low emissions include tempeh, tofu, black beans, milk, eggs, nuts, and wild rice. The analysis is imperfect, however, as more robust data is needed to estimate the kgCO2e of more specific food items, with emissions adjusted based on recommended serving sizes (wouldn’t it be nice to haveCO2 emissions per serving on food labels?). Also, the actual kgCO2e depends on other factors that transcend this short analysis. For example, the “food miles,” i.e. the distance travelled between where the food was sourced and where you purchased it, plays a big role in carbon footprint. As a safe bet, opt for local, seasonal food (like farmer’s markets!).

What does this mean?

To follow an eco-friendly diet, good rules of thumb are to limit your intake of beef, pork, and cheese and to buy locally and seasonally as often as possible. With the higher carbon output per serving, it’s recommended that chicken intake is limited in comparison to other excellent sources of protein, such as tempeh, tofu, black beans, eggs, and wild rice. Complement your meals with vegetables such as broccoli, potatoes, and brussel sprouts, which add to your total protein count and generally offer numerous health benefits.

To look at the numbers more granularly, check out the table below. As you can see, you’ve got a lot of options to keep your meals diverse, delicious, and eco-friendly:

Food Protein/serving (g) kgCO2e/serving Serving size
Chicken (breast) 35 6.9 4oz
Chicken (thigh) 30 6.9 4oz
Wild salmon (US sourced) 21 3.9 100g
Organic edamame 18 2 1 cup
Seitan 18 / 3oz
Organic tempeh 16 2 3oz
Spelt 14.57 3.5oz
Organic tofu 8-15 2 3oz
Kamut 9.8 1 cup (172g)
Lentils 9 0.9 1/2 cup
Non-fat 8.75 1.062 1 cup
1-2% 8.53 1.062 1 cup
Whole milk (3.25% milk fat) 7.69 1.062 1 cup
Black beans 7.6 2 1/2 cup
Lima beans 7.3 2 1/2 cup
Peanuts/peanut butter 7 2.5 1/4 cup/2tbsp of peanut butter
Wild rice 6.5 2.7 1 cup
Teff 6.4 / 1/4 cup
Egg (full) 6.3 1.8 1 egg
Egg white 3.6 1.8 1 large egg white
Egg yolk 2.7 1.8 1 large egg yolk
Chickpeas 6 2 1/2 cup
Quinoa 6 / 1/4 cup
Almonds 6 2.3 1/2 cup
Chia seeds 6 / 2tbsp
Sorghum 5.1 / 1/4 cup
Steel cut oatmeal 5 / 1/4 cup dry
Cashews 5 2.3 1/4 cup
Pumpkin seeds 5 / 1/4 cup
Amaranth 4.7 / 1/2 cup
Potatoes 4 2.9 1 medium
Spinach 3 / 1/2 cup
Organic corn 2.5 / 1/2 cup
Avocado 2 / 1/2 avocado
Broccoli 2 2 1/2 cup (cooked)
Brussel sprouts 2 / 1/2 cup

So, how do you get your protein?

It turns out, in a lot of ways! Luckily, there is no shortage of delicious, eco-friendly sources, many of which are packed with essential vitamins and micronutrients. Now, the next time someone asks you about where you get your protein, you’ve got plenty of data to share.

Happy healthy eating!

*I’ll update the chart and graph of my analysis as more information becomes available.


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