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6 of the Most Sustainable Meat Alternatives

Food
Tempeh skewers made from soybeans. AmalliaEka / Getty Images

By Jeannette Cwienk

After the coronavirus spread through a number of slaughterhouses in Germany and the United States, some people might be asking themselves how they can replace meat in their diets.



Perhaps they're worried that meat production could collapse if facilities are in lockdown. Or maybe ethical reasons are their main concern.

The recent revelation that more than 200 workers at a slaughterhouse in western Germany were infected with COVID-19 has shed light on the catastrophic working conditions in industrial meat production. But it's no secret that the sector harms people, the environment and the climate, not to mention the suffering of animals.

Some 14.5% of human-produced global greenhouse gases come from the meat production industry. Farm animals and their waste also cause significant environmental damage: cattle produce methane gas that negatively impacts the climate, while enormous quantities of liquid manure put groundwater at risk.

But meat consumption is increasing worldwide — even in developing countries. And the losses in nutrients are alarming. For example, 11 kilograms (24 pounds) of plant protein are required to feed an animal to get 1 kilogram of protein in the form of meat.

There are many alternatives to steak and sausages from animals — and most of them are lower in calories, contain no cholesterol, and keep you full for longer.

1. Soy Products: Schnitzel, Tofu, Tempeh

The typical meat substitute in supermarkets in Europe, North America and Australia comes from soy. From burgers and goulash to sliced meat, sausages and cold cuts — a variety of products are seasoned and shaped to resemble animal products. In its native Asia, soy is mostly consumed as the fresh bean, edamame, or as tofu and tempeh.

The protein content of dried soybeans is significant — about 35-40%. On top of that, the bean contains several essential amino acids that the body needs to absorb protein. But it's also important to point out that the beans' protein content drops to about 12% after cooking. Tofu contains 7-15 grams, while tempeh and soy strips contain 18-20%.

Besides protein, soybeans also contain many unsaturated fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins. By comparison, 100 grams of raw pork has about 18% protein, according to the GU nutrition table.

Given that 80% of the world's soybean cultivation comes from the United States, Argentina and Brazil, the bean usually travels some distance before it's consumed. But the argument that the rainforest is being cut down for tofu makes little sense, because 80% of the world's soy production is actually used as animal feed.

Farmers in Europe are now also growing soy, although the conditions aren't ideal — the beans come from the subtropics, and so need a warm, humid environment to thrive. Soybeans require less water than meat production, but don't score as well on that front compared to some other legumes.

2. Lupins 

Meat alternatives made from sweet lupins are becoming more popular in Germany, with shredded lupin or lupin steak no longer a rarity on supermarket shelves. Lupins are most commonly used, however, as a substitute for milk, yogurt or eggs. They're also used in gluten-free baking products because they contain no gluten.

Lupins have an impressively high amount of protein: the plant's dried beans contain at least 40%, as well as various vitamins and minerals. Unlike soybeans, lupins can cope with a dry climate and grow well in lime and sandy soils. That means conditions in Europe are better suited to lupins than soybeans.

3. Beans and Beyond

Beans, lentils and peas also have protein in spades. In their dry form, green peas contain around 23%, but that amount shrinks to 8% during cooking. Most types of beans contain 8-10% protein after cooking — more than half that of pork. These legumes aren't available as sausages or cutlets — at least not yet anyway. Still, a bean-based chili sin carne promises a decent amount of protein, as does a spread made from brown lentils instead of Leberwurst, or liver pate. Add green spelt grain, spelt or oat-flakes (17% protein) to this spread, and it becomes even healthier, as well as tasty. That's because these cereals, nuts and seeds are ideal for the absorption of protein.

All legumes, including soybeans and lupins, have a positive effect on the soil they grow in. They hardly need any fertilizer, since they draw nitrogen from the air with the help of nodule bacteria. They also enrich the earth with humus.

4. Seitan – Wheat Protein

This meat substitute consists of wheat gluten. Its slightly fibrous texture means it is mainly used for ready-made meat alternatives. It's produced by mixing flour and water into a dough, followed by repeated rinsing to remove starch until only the protein mass remains.

As with tofu, a large amount of the vitamins and minerals are lost during this process. And then there are the many flavorings and thickeners that often get added. One advantage Seitan has over soy, though, is that the wheat or spelt it comes from can be grown in many parts of the world.

5. Sunflower Seeds

This type of "ground meat" comes from the remnants of sunflower seeds after they've been pressed to extract oil. It contains large amounts of protein, all the essential amino acids and many B vitamins.

All nuts and seeds generally have a very high protein content. Hemp seeds top the list with more than 31%, closely followed by pumpkin seeds, peanuts (26%), almonds (21%) and sunflower seeds (19%). Nuts and seeds also contain valuable unsaturated fatty acids. This also makes them a good source of energy, in their unpressed form.

6. Quorn

This meat substitute, known as Quorn, is made from fermented mold fungus, with added vitamins and egg protein.

Vegetarians can enjoy it fried, for example, but for vegans this highly processed product isn't an option. Still, its climate footprint is likely smaller than that of a steak, if only because the production of eggs doesn't consume as many resources as that of meat.

The B12 Problem

Despite all the advantages that come with plant-based meat substitutes, one essential nutrient is missing: vitamin B12. Only animal products can provide sufficient bioavailable levels of it. The German Nutrition Society recommends an intake of 3 micrograms per day. That's the equivalent of about 100 grams of beef or salmon, 150 grams of cheese, or half a liter of whole milk. That means those who don't eat animal products have to resort to food supplements to get their daily B12 dose.

Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.

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Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.