China Food

Depth | recognition of protein (Part I): from the dispute between red and white to the protein “gap”

What and how much meat to eat is a very serious topic.

By EVA fan

Source: foodaily daily food (id:foodaily)


“Food is the most important thing for the people”. From simple food to delicious food, from satiety to natural health, the economic boom has promoted the change of diet concept, and millions of people have begun to pursue the happiness of lips, teeth and tongue and the nutritional satisfaction of dietary life.


Under the general health trend of reducing sugar and fat, protein has become a particularly dazzling “buff component” in daily diet. FMCG gurus’ 2021 survey shows that 55% of global consumers are willing to pay extra for high protein.


“Low carbon, low fat and high protein” have become the golden dietary principle in the hearts of consumers. People began to pay attention to various protein intake paths – animal meat, aquatic products, dairy products, egg products, and plant meat led by soybeans and peas. A wide variety of dietary patterns and nutritional perspectives have come in one after another. There are also a variety of high protein foods and nutritional supplements on the market. People suddenly find that the problem of protein intake that could be solved by a bowl of braised meat and a few eggs has become “confusing”: only animal food contains “complete protein”? Need enough protein for every meal? Protein does not promote insulin secretion like carbohydrates, so you can safely and boldly ingest it? Not only are these debates and puzzles at the nutritional level, protein has become the best “carrier” for various commercial forces in the field of agricultural food, and one of the factors that must be considered when formulating development policies between countries and regions.


In April this year, the expert group of the international sustainable food system (IPES food) prepared a long report called the politics of protein, focusing on 8 controversial points related to protein, which explored the common misconceptions of the international community about protein, the underlying causes of these perceptions, and the correction methods from multiple dimensions.


The final conclusion of this report can be summarized as two points——


1. Over the past decades, the bottom level consciousness of “need to eat more protein” formed by human beings has led to excessive inclination of agricultural production, food research, nutrition education, marketing, and investment and financing activities to high protein food, and gradually formed today’s “absolutely correct protein” food production and trade pattern;


2. A large amount of evidence shows that there is no “protein gap” between regions / countries in the world. Protein is only one of the many nutrients lacking in the diet of the hungry and malnourished. Protein deficiency is mainly the result of poverty and improper access.


The commercial upsurge of protein substitution has been going on for many years in the world. Although the food industry has made great efforts to demonstrate the significant advantages of alternative proteins in sustainability, the IPES food expert group believes that: alternative proteins are all super processed (over processed) foods, and their single use of raw materials and greenhouse gas intensive processing mode “can reproduce the disadvantages of food production in the industrial era”. Reassessing the claims of alternative proteins, especially in the sustainable dimension, is the first step to correct long-standing misconceptions. The extension from substituting protein to rethinking the diet concept and food production mode with protein as the core will become a global issue that has attracted wide attention and discussion again after the “clean label”, “sugar reduction campaign” and “plant-based”.


Foodaily Research Institute will publish a group of articles to re recognize protein and sustainable food production according to the main content of this report. It is expected to give the domestic food industry and readers a new perspective to scientifically view the significance of protein food in human development and social progress, so as to promote the long-term and stable development of protein related industries.


This article focuses on:

1. In the tide of health, people’s “resistance” to animal meat is growing. Is the red meat that has long been equated with unhealthy really as shocking as the legend?

2. As an important part of the Millennium diet culture, can the concept of “no meat, no joy” diet be changed? Will animal and plant double protein become a new dietary trend?

3. Thanks to the prevalence of “protein gap theory”, high protein food and alternative protein industry have developed rapidly. Behind the grand scene, is it a forward-looking decision to be prepared for danger in times of peace, or a carefully prepared market foam?


Red meat: is it a high-quality protein gas station,

Or a potential diet bomb?


Under the trend of healthy diet, meat is no longer just a delicious meat food in daily diet, but is endowed with more nutritional connotation. From frying, frying and eating meat in the past to examining its health from the perspectives of macro and micro, physiological metabolism, processing and storage, the change of diet concept has made the public think more and more diverse in the purchase of meat, among which the most topical one is “red and white meat health PK”.


Image source: farm online


According to the definition of the World Health Organization, “red meat” refers to the muscles of mammals, such as pork, beef and mutton. Poultry meat such as chicken and duck and aquatic products such as fish and shrimp are collectively called “white meat”. Because it contains high saturated fat, the conclusion that red meat has a high correlation with cancer, type II diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases has been heard all the time. Some diet suggestions and policy guidelines restricting meat consumption also have the view that “eating red meat has health risks”.


Based on a large number of research results, the eat lancet Committee, which is committed to exploring healthy diet and sustainable food production, put forward a healthy diet model called “planetary health diet” in 2019. It is recommended to ensure zero or very low intake (no more than 14g) of red meat and processed meat every day. Eat lancet believes that this diet can prevent more than 11million diet related premature deaths each year. The European Commission also advocates reducing the intake of red meat and processed meat in its recently launched cancer prevention and control plan, and the international agency for research on cancer (IARC) has designated processed red meat as a class of carcinogens.


Image source: Cancer Research UK


Various media reports and authoritative dietary suggestions that completely deny red meat have virtually strengthened the public’s negative cognition of red meat, and also equated red meat rich in protein with health killers. However, although eating a lot of red meat is indeed one of the many behaviors that increase the risk of chronic diseases, there is no absolute causal relationship between the two.


1. “Eating red meat is harmful to health” is a false proposition

In view of the ethical and practical obstacles in diet clinical trials, many relevant data proving that red meat has health risks are mainly based on observational studies. However, everyone’s living habits are different, which leads to the rise of the overall risk of disease, which can be the result of the combined action of confounding factors. Therefore, observational studies can only show correlation, not clear causality. For example, those who eat a lot of red meat and processed meat tend to have other unhealthy lifestyles, such as smoking and drinking.


In addition, the data collection of observational diet research largely depends on the subjects’ diet memories. Intentional or unintentional false positives and “memory bias” will also affect the accuracy of the final data and lead to misleading results. The results may vary greatly according to different research design methods and setting parameters. For example, although many evidences show the link between red meat and the risk of chronic diseases, a long-term study involving nearly 30000 people found that all types of meat, including poultry, are significantly related to cardiovascular disease, not just red meat.


David Allison, Dean of the school of public health at Indiana University, said that a person who believes that eating less red meat and processed meat will improve health is a subjective choice. However, if there is evidence that eating red meat or processed meat will be harmful to health, it is obvious that the current research evidence can not fully support this view.


Source: goodfon


2. Choose healthy processing and preparation methods > be picky about eating so-called healthier meat

The way meat is processed and prepared has a significant impact on its health risks. A recent large international prospective study found that the relationship between the intake of unprocessed red meat and the risk of cardiovascular disease was far less clear than that of processed meat. Although the molecular reactions in meat are very complex, it is almost certain that different meat preparation methods have different hidden health risks.


Barbecue, frying, smoking and other high-temperature cooking methods can promote the formation of several known carcinogens in meat, such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Additives and preservatives in processed meat, such as N-nitroso compounds, are also associated with cancer risk. Therefore, the description of “excessive consumption of red meat + unhealthy cooking methods = potential cancer risk” may be more reasonable.

Image source: wallpaper flare


3. Forage: Double buff of red meat nutrition and ecological sustainability

According to different ways of raising livestock, there are significant differences in the nutritional value and health risk of meat.


The study found that compared with grain feeding, meat of grass fed livestock can provide better omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid ratio, as well as higher levels of antioxidants, including vitamins A and E, which can help reduce cholesterol levels, mild systemic inflammation, cardiovascular disease and cancer risk. However, the research on the relationship between high meat diet and chronic diseases rarely distinguishes between the consumption of herbivorous meat and industrial feeding meat, which virtually weakens the nutritional support of feeding methods for red meat and enhances the illusion that red meat is not desirable.


Source: Brown blogs


In addition, the statement about the impact of red meat on human health often only involves the direct physiological impact, ignoring a series of health risks related to environmental pollution caused by industrial animal husbandry production, especially the potential crisis of antibiotic resistance (AMR). In view of the wide spread of its transmission, antimicrobial resistance is one of the fastest growing health crises in the world.


Although some countries have made progress in reducing the use of antimicrobial agents in feedlots in recent years, the amount of antimicrobial agents used in the industrial system is still about three times that used in the production of grass fed beef. It is expected that the total amount of antimicrobial agents used in the whole animal husbandry will increase by at least 67% between 2010 and 2030.

Source: Frontiers


4. Look at both sides: red meat has both negative and positive health effects

In the context of great health, the public will unconsciously enlarge the risk of chronic diseases when they look at red meat, while ignoring the positive contribution of red meat in food nutrition. For example, red meat is rich in heme iron (the iron with the highest bioavailability), and its absorption rate is 15%~40%, while non heme iron contained in plant foods is only 1%~15%.

As red meat is rich in nutrients, adding an appropriate amount of red meat to the diet in areas with relatively scarce materials will help improve the health status of residents, such as promoting the growth and cognitive function of newborns and children. A South Asian study shows that animal derived foods, including red meat, are the key food for many malnourished people, especially young children, adolescents and women of childbearing age.


Image source: ahdb


Animal food represented by meat,

Is it an unshakable existence in the food culture?


In many parts of the world, meat consumption is closely related to cultural traditions. For Brazilians, barbecue has a unique cohesion. It is an important activity in a week and a long historical tradition. A kind of roasted red meat named churrasco is a symbolic component of the food culture of southern Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. The American food culture also centers on meat. Meat can be seen from family recipes to holiday dinners, from high-end dishes to one yuan menus.


Open the Chinese meat eating map, it is more like a meat atlas. Because no matter what kind of meat it is, it can find its own shining point in China. “Being a pig in the southwest is very stressful”, “in Guangdong, chickens and fish can’t fly”, “no cattle or sheep can leave the northwest alive” Different regions have their own characteristics of meat, and meat always stands at the top of the pyramid of Chinese food culture.


Image source: 3png


In addition to daily dishes, meat also occupies a central position in festival celebrations. For example, the mutton or mutton of the African Eid al AdhA, the turkey of the Western Thanksgiving, the ham or poultry of the Christmas, the beef brisket of the Jewish Hanukkah and the fish, chicken, duck or pork of the Chinese Lunar New Year. Meat has penetrated into the social culture of the people of all countries from many levels.


2017 data show that in the United States, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand and Spain, people eat more than 100 kg of meat every year. Meat consumption in Nigeria and West Africa as a whole is also growing rapidly. According to the data of China’s National Bureau of statistics, China’s per capita meat consumption reached 51.3kg in 2019, about 16 times higher than that in 1961.


The strong presence of meat in the global food culture makes many people default that meat is an indispensable part of daily life, so that at the moment when the plant-based is popular all over the world, many product R & D are still solving the problem of how to perfectly imitate meat. The good food institute, a non-profit organization that aims to promote animal product substitutes based on plants and cells, also believes that turning to meat substitutes will bring faster and more market benefits than trying to change the diet culture.


Image source: Netease digital reading


However, food culture is not a solid rock, it has a high degree of mobility, and is affected by social economy, government policies, marketing and other factors; It is also malleable and can absorb and accommodate more emerging cultures.


First, many developing countries’ dietary changes are more or less affected by government policies. For example, many governments will choose to issue state subsidies to ensure that meat and dairy products are affordable and rich in output, so as to stimulate the consumption of animal derived food. In addition to price control, the development strategy formulated by the government also greatly guides the industry to accelerate the transformation, promotes enterprises to improve product competitiveness, and ultimately benefits consumers. In China, many leading animal husbandry enterprises have accelerated their industrialization under the guidance of policies, and continuously introduced more animal food with good quality and low price, which has kept the strong development momentum of China’s meat production and marketing.


Secondly, the marketing strategy adopted by the enterprise is also trying to consolidate the cultural preference of eating meat, and intends to strengthen the linkage between meat consumption and key words such as festivals, celebrations and ceremonies. For example, in 2016, Cargill, a large food processing enterprise in the United States, released a limited holiday advertisement for its turkey products on Thanksgiving Day, and put forward the slogan of “nest. simple. Turkey”, which linked the traditional food of Thanksgiving turkey with other positive cultural values, and continued to infiltrate the eating culture of eating turkey on Thanksgiving day into consumers’ cognition.


Source: PR Newswire

It must be acknowledged that for thousands of years, human feeding and consumption of food of animal origin have played a key role in shaping social and cultural relations. However, it is worth noting that vegetarianism is rising in high-income western countries. According to the report on the prospects of vegetarians and plant-based foods released by Euromonitor International in March 2021, although the global total vegetarians still account for a small number of people, more and more people are trying to reduce the consumption of some animal products. This group of “flexible vegetarians” has accounted for 42% of the global population in 2020. They do not completely exclude animal products, but prefer to eat plant-based products or vegetables.


Based on the shaping of new dietary values and the understanding of the continuous evolution of animal derived foods, people’s preferences can be changed rapidly – the emergence of animal welfare, environment and health problems is Reshaping Global eating habits and impacting traditional meat consumption.

Source: good food institute


The substitute protein industry with plant meat as the representative product came into being. According to the market data recently released by Boston Consulting, by 2035, the market scale of alternative protein is expected to reach 290billion US dollars, of which the market share of plant-based products will reach 69%. Since 2019, with the listing of beyond meat, the new protein industry has been favored by capital. According to industry estimates, in 2010-2020, alternative protein enterprises have raised nearly $6billion in investment. In China, a large number of plant meat start-ups have sprung up, while traditional meat enterprises seek the path of enterprise transformation and upgrading through the development of plant meat. The substitute protein industry is in full swing and has the potential to replace animal protein.


At present, the development track of the alternative protein industry basically revolves around the direction of “how to 100% perfectly imitate meat”. The enterprise has been using “familiar shell and innovative core” to cater to the long-standing meat culture, without trying to fundamentally change the meat centered diet culture – whether traditional animal meat, cell culture meat or plant meat, all belong to meat consumption behavior in consumption cognition.


Source: gooddot


Food culture is highly mobile and malleable, and is easily changed and reshaped by various factors. The intergenerational change of consumer groups and the rapid spread of popular elements and cultural ideas in the world have made today’s dietary preferences very different from those ten or even five years ago. Meat eating, which is rooted in traditional culture, is being replaced by new ideas that are more rational and more humanistic. In the debate about “eating meat” or not, the “double protein” model that advocates both animal and plant foods seems to have more market.


It will take some time for consumers to establish their awareness of dual protein nutrition balance, but the national nutrition plan has become a booster of the dual protein nutrition model. In 2017, the general office of the State Council issued the national nutrition plan 2017-2030, pointing out that efforts should be made to develop new nutritional and healthy foods such as double protein foods, and to carry out and promote double protein foods and double protein projects. Desalinating the substitution of plant protein for animal protein and focusing on the mutual supplement of the two in nutrition may be the next concept that can be based on the spire of food culture.


Image source: medium


“Protein gap” derived from population expansion:

Plan ahead or alarmist?


In the 1930s, nutritionists attributed kwashiorkor, a severe malnutrition in children, to a lack of protein. Since then, the discussion on diet and nutrition in Africa and even the world has been focused on solving the problem of protein deficiency. In 1968, the World Health Organization (who), the food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) jointly issued a warning: “the protein crisis” is a global emergency that needs urgent attention.


Image source: Health kart


In view of the growing demand for meat, the main source of protein supply in the world, more and more food enterprises regard the doubling of protein production as their business objectives. Inadvertently, the whole industry seems to confuse the need to produce more food with the need for more protein.


Noel white, an executive of Tyson Foods, once said: by 2050, the global food system needs to double the protein production to meet the needs of nearly 10billion people. Similarly, an article published in wired, a well-known American science and technology magazine, believes that if we want to feed a growing population on a planet with limited land resources, we must explore new food sources, especially protein.


Image source: Getty Images


At present, many large food enterprises have begun to adjust their business direction and brands around protein, or acquire alternative protein start-ups to strengthen the global awareness of the need for more protein. Several leading enterprises, such as Tyson Foods, Cargill and Hormel, have incorporated protein companies into the company’s strategic system, and Maple Leaf Foods regards becoming “the most sustainable protein company on earth” as its corporate vision.


In addition to the “protein boom” in the commercial market, protein has once again become the focus of academic research. From 1991 to 2020, the number of articles in academic journals containing the search term “protein” and sustainability was almost five times that of articles related to fat or carbohydrate, which showed that protein always played a central role in the discussion on the future of the food system.


Source: IPES food


Although many discussions and solutions on protein deficiency clearly respond to legitimate concerns about food security, sustainability and dietary change, the claim of protein crisis is often exaggerated and may be misleading.


1. The ideal is “bony” and the reality is “plump”: objectively understand the lack and surplus of protein


Considering the differences in economic level, material supply and food quality among regions, protein deficiency does exist in specific populations / regions, but it does not mean global protein deficiency.


The study found that the average protein intake of children in most parts of the world is much higher than the recommended level. There is even a total surplus in protein volume in many regions. If plant protein is not converted into animal protein through feed crops, it is believed that the surplus will be more. A study by the World Resources Institute (WRI) shows that in 2009, the global average protein consumption reached about 68 grams per person per day – more than 10% higher than the average daily demand of adults, and the protein consumption in economically developed regions was significantly higher. Wri predicts that the surplus space of animal and plant proteins in the whole Americas will continue to expand, and sub Saharan Africa will also maintain a small surplus.


Source: World Resources Institute


China agricultural industry development report 2021 points out that the current domestic food energy can fully meet the energy intake needs of Chinese residents, but the residents’ demand for energy, protein and fat is increasing significantly. At the same time, food consumption and waste are serious in China. More than 12% of food energy and protein are consumed and wasted.


2. Put down the “specificity” of protein and become a hexagonal warrior with balanced diet


In fact, the lack of adequate protein intake is only one of the many nutritional deficiencies affecting populations around the world. A 2050 study predicts that the population in all regions will face more calcium and vitamin D deficiency than carbohydrate and protein, while the adequacy of iron and vitamin A will vary according to the specific environment.


Source: IPES food


Micronutrient deficiency is not as easy to be found as “hungry belly”, so it is called “hidden hunger”. It is also often said that “eating full is not equal to eating well”. At present, more than 2billion people around the world are suffering from this hidden hunger, accounting for about 1/3 of the global population.


In China, the situation of “hidden hunger” is not optimistic. According to the survey report on nutrition and health status of Chinese residents, the number of people suffering from “hidden hunger” in China may exceed 500million. Nutritional imbalance, malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency are quite common among Chinese people. About 45% of the total population is deficient in vitamin A, 49% is deficient in zinc intake, the proportion of iron deficiency anemia in children under the age of 5 is as high as 22%, and the proportion of adult iron deficiency anemia also accounts for 11%.


Source: trekkerpedia


Undernutrition is caused by a series of complex physiological mechanisms, social environment and economic factors, including lack of adequate diet, improper nutrition absorption and lack of safe drinking water and sanitation facilities. In this case, protein centered intervention is not the most appropriate solution. A truly healthy diet should not focus on the super supplement of a single ingredient, but should pay more attention to balanced and comprehensive nutrition intake.


3. Using tendentious reports and precise marketing, concoct a “beautiful misunderstanding” of protein deficiency

The public interest in healthy diet is growing rapidly, and protein has become a hot material, which is reflected in academic research, social media and policy trends. But at the same time, people’s cognition is also influenced by some protein centered nutrition research and strong tendentious propaganda in media reports.


A survey on the media coverage in the United Kingdom and the United States from 2013 to 2018 found that most of the citations in 75% of the articles related to laboratory cultured meat came from the industry and enterprise level. This means that the views output from such reports are very conducive to replacing the protein industry and favor the artificial meat manufacturers, thus further guiding the consumption cognition to the direction they want.


Source: IPES food


Industry marketing also plays an important role in strengthening the “protein Mania” of global consumers. Katherine Ellen Foley, columnist of quartz, an international financial website, has conducted in-depth research on the best-selling protein food in the United States. She found that protein food can be seen everywhere in a convenience store. The packages of various snacks and cereal foods boast that they are full of rich protein nutrition: each package of cereal contains 7g protein, a nut stick contains 10g protein, and a cup of yogurt contains 17g protein.


Throughout the markets at home and abroad, the protein content label on the product packaging is becoming more and more significant, and the average protein content is also rising. The high protein product line covers an increasingly wide range of categories, and even bubble water can carry high protein claims. According to the 2021 white paper on insight into the healthy food and beverage industry released by Tencent, high protein has become the first selling point of healthy diet.


The market atmosphere is set off to the extreme, and the core consumption scenario of protein products is also followed. More and more gyms have put on blenders to provide customers with protein milkshakes, although most of the time they don’t really need protein supplements.


Image source: AARP


Under the banner of “solving the protein shortage crisis and achieving perfect food nutrition”, the protein track is very hot. Coupled with the “fanning” of media reports and marketing activities, protein products have successfully harvested the minds of countless consumers, especially in the field of sports nutrition.


According to the survey data of research and markets, the global sports nutrition products (such as protein powder, protein beverage and protein bar) grew rapidly in Asia, North America and Europe in 2021, with sales of about $47.5 billion. Darren seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst at NPD group, a market research agency, pointed out that about 50% of adults usually want their food to contain more protein.


The sense of crisis for protein deficiency and the setting of excellent nutrient for protein created by all-round publicity and infiltration have successfully pulled the global consumption concept into the strange circle of obsession with protein and “nutrition”. Some “myth” views that cater to the trend of awakening health awareness are imperceptibly affecting consumer cognition and causing irrational involution of the industry with protein as the axis.




Simple and crude conclusions lack enough rigor, but they often have amazing communication power. It creates new outlets, gives related enterprises rare development opportunities, and also allows consumers to easily enter the brain and change their consumption preferences.


For a comprehensive scientific understanding of meat, especially red meat, if it is just a debate on nutrition, we might as well let various views stand in the world. However, what kind of meat to eat has never been a simple dietary issue, but a core point related to agricultural development, food industrialization, national nutrition policy and many other links. Therefore, the accurate understanding of the nutritional value of red meat, the discussion on the possibility of reforming meat eating habits, and the clarification of the truth behind the theory of protein deficiency will provide the most scientific navigation for the development of global agriculture and food industry.


In the next articles in this series, foodaily will continue to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the protein centered food production and processing system from the perspective of technology and sustainability. You are welcome to put forward your views on the views in this article, combined with the domestic protein consumption boom and the actions at the industrial level.


Reference material:

[1]Politics of Protein:Examining Claims About Livestock, Fish,‘Alternative Proteins’ and Sustainability. IPES-Food, 2022.04

[2] Talking about digestion red meat or white meat? The red and white battle of carnivores Jiaxing online, July 13, 2021

[3] China’s meat eating map, the North lost miserably Netease digital reading, October 13, 2021

[4] Once the DNA of eating meat moves, we can’t stop the business opportunities of big meat consuming countries Foodaily daily food, February 22, 2022

[5]Going Plant-Based: The Rise of Vegan and Vegetarian Food. Euromonitor International, March 2021

[6] The new protein industry is poised for development Xinhuanet, January 24, 2022

[7] National nutrition plan 2017-2030, general office of the State Council, July 13, 2017

[8] China agricultural industry development report 2021, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, International Food Policy Research Institute

[9] Nutrition and health status of Chinese residents (2004), Ministry of health of the people’s Republic of China

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