Alternative Proteins: Revolutionizing Global Diets

As the global community grapples with the dual crises of obesity and undernutrition, alongside the escalating threats of climate change, the search for sustainable dietary solutions has never been more urgent. Industrial animal agriculture, particularly the production of beef, is a significant contributor to environmental degradation and health issues. In this context, the exploration of alternative proteins (APs)—derived from plants, insects, microorganisms, or cell-based agriculture—offers a promising avenue for mitigating these challenges.

The article “Alternative Proteins: Revolutionizing Global Diets” delves into the transformative potential of APs in reshaping global dietary patterns and the policies needed to support this shift. Authored by María Schilling and based on a comprehensive study by Kraak, V., Kapur, M., Thamilselvan, V., et al., the piece highlights how transitioning to APs can reduce the health risks associated with meat-heavy diets, lower environmental impacts, and address issues of zoonotic diseases and the exploitation of farmed animals and human laborers.

The authors examine global consumption trends and provide expert recommendations for sustainable, healthy diets, particularly focusing on the disparities between high-income countries and low- and middle-income nations. While high-income countries are encouraged to reduce animal product consumption in favor of plant-based foods, the situation is more complex in lower-income regions. Here, rapid advancements in food production have led to increased consumption of ultra-processed foods, resulting in nutrient deficiencies, undernutrition, and obesity.

The paper argues that incorporating APs into diets in low- and middle-income countries could promote healthier and more sustainable eating habits, provided these alternatives are nutrient-dense and culturally acceptable. The authors call for comprehensive government policies to facilitate this dietary transition, emphasizing the need for a universally-accepted classification system for APs and sustainable diet recommendations tailored to the needs of diverse populations.

As the demand for APs grows in regions such as Asia Pacific, Australasia, Western Europe, and North America, the article underscores the importance of aligning national food-based dietary guidelines with expert recommendations. This alignment is crucial for preventing malnutrition and promoting global health and sustainability.

Summary By: María Schilling | Original Study By: Kraak, V., Kapur, M., Thamilselvan, V., et al. (2023) | Published: June 12, 2024

This article looks at the emerging role of alternative proteins in global diets and the policies shaping this change.

Obesity and undernutrition are major threats to human health, while climate change affects both people and the planet. Research shows that industrial animal agriculture, and particularly cow meat production, has a higher climate footprint than plant-based agriculture. Meat-heavy diets (especially “red” and processed meat)  are also associated with a number of health problems.

In this context, the authors of this paper argue that transitioning to alternative proteins (APs), which can be derived from plants, insects, microorganisms, or cell-based agriculture can reduce the health risks associated with heavy meat consumption while mitigating the environmental impact, zoonotic disease risk, and abusive treatment of farmed animals and human laborers.

This paper examines global consumption trends, expert recommendations for sustainable healthy diets, and policy insights from high-income countries to understand how APs can support healthy and sustainable diets in low- and middle-income countries (where people experience higher rates of malnutrition).

In high-income countries, expert recommendations for sustainable, healthy diets focus on reducing the consumption of animal products and eating more plant-source whole foods. In contrast, the authors point out that the circumstances of many low- and middle-income nations are different: the rapid advances in food production have boosted their consumption of ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks, leading to issues like nutrient deficiencies, undernutrition, and obesity.

Simultaneously, the use of animals for food is set in many cultural traditions. The authors argue that animal products can help supply diets with adequate protein and micronutrients in vulnerable rural populations. However, the incorporation of APs could contribute to healthier, more sustainable diets in middle- and low-income countries if they satisfy the needs of populations and are nutrient-dense. They point out that governments should develop comprehensive policies that focus on these improvements.

When considering the regional demand of proteins, the report notes that high- and upper-middle-income nations have the highest consumption of animal products compared with low-income nations. However, milk and dairy consumption is expected to rise in lower-income countries. Conversely, although APs still represent a small market compared with animal products, the demand for APs is growing in parts of Asia Pacific, Australasia, Western Europe, and North America.

Even in high-income nations, the authors point out that there is no adequate, universally-accepted classification system adequate for APs, and there is a need for exhaustive policies that establish sustainable healthy diet recommendations to meet the needs of low- and middle-income populations to prevent malnutrition.

Furthermore, national food-based dietary guidelines (FBDGs) have been developed by over 100 countries, and they differ widely. An analysis of G20 nations’ dietary guidelines showed that only five meet expert limits on processed red meat, and only six proposed plant-based or sustainable options. Although many FBDGs recommend animal milk or nutritionally equivalent plant-based drinks, the authors argue that many plant-based milks sold in high-income nations do not reach the nutritional equivalence to animal milk. Because of this, they argue that governments must develop standards to regulate the nutritional adequacy of these products if they are to be recommended in middle- and low-income nations. Dietary guidelines could be improved by recommending diets rich in plants that are healthy and sustainable, and the information should be simple, clear, and precise.

The authors feel that governments should guide the development of APs to ensure they are not only nutritious and sustainable but also affordable and appealing in taste. According to the report, only a few countries have technical recommendations for the regulations of AP products and ingredients, and the regulatory landscape exposes tension between conventional animal product and AP producers. The authors argue that international guidelines and nutrient reference values, food safety standards, and ingredient and labeling standards should be put in place to facilitate international trade and inform consumers in their dietary choices. Simple, recognizable labeling systems that clearly state the nutritional value and sustainability profile of foods are necessary.

In summary, the report argues that the current global food system is not achieving nutrition and health outcomes, environmental sustainability, and equity targets. Animal advocates can work with government officials and agencies to carry out some of the recommended policies above. It’s also important for advocates on the ground in both high- and low-income countries to make consumers aware of how their food choices are connected to health, the environment, and human and animal suffering.

Notice: This content was initially published on and may not necessarily reflect the views of the Humane Foundation.

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