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As Meat Prices Soar in Pandemic, Try These Healthier High-Protein Foods

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Meat and poultry processing plants are hot spots for COVID-19 outbreaks, constricting the supply chains for beef, chicken and pork – and sending their prices soaring.  

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, last month saw the biggest increase in grocery prices in nearly 50 years. Food prices rose across the board, but the sharpest increase­ – 4.3 percent from March to April – was for meats, poultry, fish and eggs. In a poll conducted by National Geographic and Morning Consult, 33 percent of Americans surveyed say they are preparing more meatless meals because of higher prices and limited options at grocery stores.

Even in normal times, meat costs more than many other high-protein foods: The Department of Agriculture’s survey of nationwide retail prices finds that per gram of protein, beef costs 28 percent more than eggs. And during the pandemic, many plant-based sources of protein – such as lentils, beans and nuts – have not seen the price surges of beef, pork and poultry.

Price aside, USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a variety of protein sources for optimal health, including “seafood as the protein food choice in meals twice per week in place of meat, poultry or eggs, and using legumes or nuts and seeds . .  . instead of some meat or poultry.” Eating large quantities of beef and processed meats increases your exposure to toxins and is linked to higher rates of health problems, including heart disease, cancer and obesity.

Another consideration is the impact on the environment and climate caused by the production of the billions of pounds of meat Americans eat each year, which requires large amounts of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, fossil fuel, animal feed and water. It also generates greenhouse gases and large amounts of toxic manure and wastewater that pollute groundwater, rivers, streams and, ultimately, the ocean. 

And in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, amino acids, derived from both plant and animal proteins, are an essential part of our diet. They not only help maintain our body mass but also form the cell membranes of important immune system cells that help fight viruses.

The average daily recommended value of protein for people is 50 grams, which can easily be achieved without relying solely on meat and poultry. In fact, as the USDA dietary guidelines state, “Teen boys and adult men also need to reduce overall intake of protein foods by decreasing intakes of meats, poultry and eggs and increasing amounts of vegetables.”

Put all these factors together, and it’s clear that now is an opportune time to bolster your health with cheaper and less polluting protein options. Consider these when preparing meals to feed yourself and your family:

Lentils: The leanest, greenest protein of all. Lentils are also high in iron, zinc, folate, fiber and other nutrients, with about 18 grams of protein and 7 grams of iron per cup.  

Beans: Rich in protein, iron, fiber and phytonutrients for cancer defense. A single cup of most kinds of beans provides more than a quarter of the daily recommendation for protein – a cup of edamame, or boiled soybeans, provides 63 percent. Buy dry beans instead of canned to avoid exposure to the endocrine-disrupting chemical BPA.

Chickpeas: A single cup provides more than 14 grams of protein, is an excellent source of iron and packs in half a day’s worth of fiber, helping to reduce “bad” cholesterol. Check out this hummus recipe from chef Ann Cooper, author and advocate of healthy food for kids.

Tofu: A half-cup of tofu – a bit more than a quarter of a regular block – provides 10 grams of protein. Tofu is an excellent source of the essential omega-3 fat ALA and is packed with other important nutrients, including calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc and the antioxidant selenium.

Nuts: A great choice, providing fiber as well as the “good” fats that help lower cholesterol. Protein content varies: A one-ounce serving of peanuts provides 7.3 grams of protein, whereas an ounce of cashews, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts or pine nuts provides four grams. Because nuts have more calories than other plant-based proteins, USDA’s guidelines say they should replace other proteins, not be added, and they should be unsalted whenever possible to keep sodium intake low.

Peanut butter: A terrific source of protein and a good source of fiber and other nutrients. Two tablespoons of peanut butter provide about eight grams of protein. Make sure to choose brands made with Valencia peanuts to avoid aflatoxins, and brands without added ingredients like partially hydrogenated oils or sugars.

Brown rice: A heart-healthy source of partial protein. Consider pairing it with another complementary protein source, such as legumes. Remember to boil it like pasta to reduce potential arsenic contamination.

Eggs: The gold standard of protein due to the complete amino acid profile. One egg contains six grams of protein, and its production requires one-fourth less the greenhouse gas emissions than the same amount of beef. Based on USDA research of nationwide retail prices, a three-ounce serving of ground beef costs 76 cents, but the same amount of protein from eggs costs 50 cents. Pick eggs that are organic or pasture-raised or both, and look for certified humane.

Seafood: American adults average a little more than 3.5 ounces of seafood a week, despite expert recommendations to eat eight ounces, and consume on average 32 ounces of meat a week. Swap out meat for seafood twice a week for a heart-healthy – and, when canned, affordable – source of protein. Although frozen, fresh and local wild-caught are best, canned salmon and tuna are good options.

More tips from EWG:

  • Good Food on a Tight Budget lists our handpicked best 100 foods that pack in nutrients at a good price, with the fewest pesticides, contaminants and artificial ingredients.
  • EWG’s Food Scores database lists more than 80,000 products to help you find the healthiest and greenest plant-based proteins. Each product in the database is rated based on nutrition, ingredient concerns and processing. 
  • Cooking at home is the best way to save money and enjoy good food. Check out simple recipes from EWG’s Good Food on a Tight Budget. And the cookbooks by Myra Goodman, Dr. Mark Hyman and chef Abra Berens are filled with delicious recipes that include these plant-based proteins.
 

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