Vegan Tip #2: Protein Sneaks (1 of 5 in a sneak series)
Last Updated: 18 Feb 2011
When your only serving of vegetables are the french fries from your fast food meal and your fruit comes it “candy made with real fruit juice” form, no one says a damn thing. Tell ‘em you’ve given up animal products and everyone flips out.Let me get this out of the way: a well-rounded vegan diet with a large variety of food will meet your nutritional needs.
Not all of our bodies, however, are created equal. Due to lifestyle, allergies, genes, environmental factors, medications and a myriad of other issues that makes biological life awesome and unique, some people seek to give a bit more focus to certain nutrients.
About Nutrient Sneaks
If you’re feeding a picky eater (either yourself or someone else) or just trying to find a way to add nutrition, give these a shot. I will cover protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D and B12 in a 5-part blog posting since these seem to be the big concerns I’ve heard most people bring up. DO NOT do this if someone is allergic to something. I feel I have to say that for some reason. In this 5-part series, you will learn about the nutrient, foods it’s found in, how to select and prepare those foods, and how to make easy swaps and covert “sneaks” (adding it to a dish without raising eyebrows) to work it into your diet.
The savvy vegan should know by now that everything on the planet, except water, juices and oils, contain protein. In other words, you don’t lose out by ditching animal products. Considering the research on high protein diets (spoiler warning: they’re bad for you, says research), you may not even want to add in extra protein.
Without losing 90% of my audience with too much detail, here are the protein basics. Protein is the building block of cells…almost all cells, not just muscle tissue like it’s heavily associated with. This means protein builds your skin cells, bone cells and even plant cells. Protein is “built” with amino acids, of which there are 3 kinds:
-Essential Amino Acids (EAAs), so called because the body cannot manufacture them. These are not extra special or of greater importance in the scheme of amino acids…they’re just called “essential” because the body can’t make them. For adults, phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, isoleucine, methionine, leucine, lysine and histidine are EAAs. For infants and kids under 5, cysteine, tyrosine and arginine are also essential. 
-Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), a type of EAA. These are important to people who need to synthesize more muscle tissue due to activity or disease because your body won’t synthesize muscle without them. Burn victims also benefit from extra BCAAs. Leucine, valine and isoleucine are your BCAAs. 
-Non-Essential Amino Acids, which are essential to the body’s function, are only called non-essential because our bodies can use other amino acids and nutrients to make them…in other words, we can eat them to get them but we don’t have to.
Amino acids each do their own cool thing, like how L-Tryptophan can help you sleep and L-Taurine can help your energy levels, but work synergystically (together) so don’t focus on just one you like the sound of. Also, aminos are named L-Name, but can be found without the L, too. L-Arginine and Arginine are the same thing, and you pronounce the L as an L…it’s not pronounced “Larginine” but “ell arginine.”
Why Vegans Shouldn’t Worry About Protein
As I said, protein is what builds cells, and plants are made of cells. I know you’ve all heard it before: “But plants are incomplete proteins!” The concept of incomplete proteins came about in a book in 1971 which basically said that plant foods are missing one EAA, so the solution to this problem was to eat other plant foods that have the missing EAA . Typically recommended is to combine a legume and a grain, like lentils and rice, because people will tell you that legumes are missing Methionine and Cysteine (sometimes listed as M+C) while grains are missing Lysine. The problem? It’s not even true. If you check out nutritiondata.com, which gives you a protein profile for every food you look up, you can easily see that lentils are hardly deficient in M+C and grains are hardly deficient in Lysine. It’s seriously just make-believe. Now, granted, there are some foods that are lower than legumes and grains in certain amino acids, but you’re supposed to be eating a well-rounded diet anyway. You don’t have to go out of your way to “combine complementary proteins” like you may have heard because a well-rounded diet does this as a default. If you’re eating well-rounded vegan diet, you’re already getting your protein without even trying.
Some new research, called The Protein Myth, promotes the idea that consumption of protein is a waste of energy because it takes so long for the body to break down protein to get the amino acids when you could just be eating enzymes (from raw plant foods), which already are amino acids so your body can just use them . I’m not on a raw diet so I’m not promoting this, but am offering you some new research for your thought.
Padding Your Protein
While your well-rounded diet can provide all the protein you need, you may find yourself wanting more for whatever reason, so here are some easy ways to add your EAAs. While protein is in everything, I’m posting vegan-friendly foods that offer all of your EAAs in one punch. Nutritiondata.com gives a “protein quality” score based on how many EAAs are found in the food…a score over 100 means the protein is high quality. To compare, most cuts of beef have a score of 94 (roasts, chuck, rib-eye, round steak [aka cube steak], short loin top loin [used for Kansas City steak, New York strip and Club Steak], tenderloin, top sirloin, flank steak…lean ground beef has a score of 85 with some cuts of beef going up to 154), chicken meat has a score of 136, various fish scores 148 (with tilapia at 124), pork bacon is at 124 (ham at 134, fresh pork between 140-150 on average), eggs score 136, cow’s milk at 116, and for fun I checked breast milk, which scored 124. Because beef scores 94 and I’m tired of people saying “OMG GO EAT A STEAK STUPID VEGAN U NEED PROTEIN,” anything that scores over 94 will be listed here.
The Food: Quinoa
Protein Score: 106. Technically a fruit, quinoa is a protein-packed “ancient grain” from South America. It can be found in most grocery stores and a good deal of it can be purchased cheaply from membership bulk stores like Costco. It is a quick-cooking food that fluffs up in about 10 minutes when simmered with water or broth. Found in white and red varieties, quinoa (pronounced “keen-WAH,” not “kin-oh-uh”) is small and circular with a mild, nutty flavor.
Instead of, or in addition to (better option!), a dish like rice, cous cous or bulghur wheat (think tabouli), use quinoa. This means not only having it as a stand-alone side dish, but serving chili or soups/stews over quinoa, making a quinoa pilaf, combining with black or red beans, quinoa tabouli, quinoa sushi (the bowl kind, aka “mixed sushi,” since quinoa isn’t glutinous like rice and won’t adhere well to itself), fried quinoa (instead of fried rice), chocolate quinoa (a higher-protein version of champarado), part of a filling in empanadas…you get the idea. Quinoa can be served hot or chilled, like in a fresh, tasty quinoa salad.
The Food: Avocado
Protein Score: 129. Loaded with healthy unsaturated fats, this green, creamy fruit awesomely contains all your EAAs. Avocados come in a few varities, but the main difference you’ll find are in California avocados (fist-sized and dark green, wrinkled skin) and Florida avocados (softball-sized and medium green, smooth skin). The latter is sometimes advertised as a “skinny-cado” because it contains up to 45% less fat; this also makes the Florida avocado lighter in flavor and not as creamy. Avocados cannot ripen on the tree and must be picked to ripen. If you want to use an avocado same day, buy one that has a little give to it when pressed with your finger, similar to a very ripe tomato. If you feel or hear the skin crack when you press the avocado, do not buy it: it’s overripe and starting to rot inside! If not using the avocado that day, feel free to buy an underripe one. Cut an avocado length-wise, keeping in mind a large, very hard pit sits in the center. When the cut is complete, twist either half to split the avocado. Using a sharp knife (the whole blade, NOT the tip), tap the pit, twist and it pops right out. BEWARE: if your blade is very sharp, it may break the pit when you twist and you can end up cutting yourself (speaking from experience). If you’re afraid you’re going to end up in the emergency room when you read that, just use a spoon to scoop out the pit. The pit can be stuck in the flesh, so you may end up losing some of it when you spoon out the avocado’s pit…but if you’re klutzy or accident-prone, it’s a fair trade. After slicing the avocado, inspect it and remove any nasty-tasting brown parts. Then, rub it with a little acid (lemon juice, lime juice or any vinegar) to prevent browning…especially important if you don’t want to use the whole avocado at once!
If you like avocados, using my previously-posted guacamole recipe, slicing it onto sandwiches, chopping it into salads, and stuffing it into all-things-Mexican (including Mexican fusion foods, like Tex-Mex or Southwest cuisines) sounds like a great idea. If you hate avocados, play up their creaminess. Avocados are fat-abulous (fatty + fabulous), but pretty tasteless otherwise. This means they can be added to anything that calls for creaminess so your method of preparation is mashing (or use a blender). Mashed/Blended avocado can be added to: refried beans, rice, smoothies and milkshakes (popular in some Asian countries like Vietnam), spread onto sandwiches/wraps/burritos with a lot of other ingredients, stirred into soups (try potato or tomato soup), stirred into a pot of chili, chilled and used instead of sour cream (try adding lemon or lime juice to get the tartness), added to mashed potatoes (yes, they’ll be green and kids, or the kid in you, will love it), fried with other ingredients into empanads or chimichangas (fried burritos) for a crisp shell with a creamy filling or added to cream pies (green pumpkin pie, anyone?). More fun than just a lousy garnish or dip, right? :)
The Food: Fermented Soy
Protein Score: Between 104 and 107, with natto scoring 97. I have no idea how soy became so freakin’ controversial, but from what I’ve read people seem to agree that whole soy products, typically fermented, are the soy products you want (isolates, pesticide-grown and raw soy tend to get a negative reputation, but consider that Asian countries enjoy non-fermented tofu in addition to soy milk and they don’t seem to be short-lived people…but that’s my thought process…draw your own conclusion!). Fermented soy products can be found as powders, natto, tempeh, miso and fermented tofu, with natto, tamari, and fermented tofu scoring the highest.
Tempeh is an easy swap: simply replace your existing meat replacer with it. Tempeh was used as a meat replacement long before “vegan” was ever coined (those that invented it did so due to their limited access to meat). It’s easily found in the refrigerated vegetarian section of most big grocery stores and I’m sure you can make your own (though I’ve never tried). You can find it plain, multi-grain, or with flavors/seasonings, even pre-marinated. A popular tempeh company also makes “fakin’ bacon,” a smokey tempeh that comes in strips and is delicious but kinda pricey (between 4 and 5 USD for a pack). Tempeh can be consumed without cooking, but if you choose to cook it then it cooks like tofu. I’ve only seen one fermented soy powder and it was made by Jarrow and Now. It can be found online, at health food stores and some GNC stores carry it. To use it, simply add it to a smoothie or blend into mashed potatoes, chili, or any other thick soup. Like sushi? Natto can be found at many sushi places or in Japanese markets. This is a stiiiiicky, gooey, salty fermented soy that is typically consumed as a breakfast food in Japan. Miso paste, which can be easily added to water for a savory broth (for soup, stew or try using it to cook grains or lentils), is another fermented soy product. It’s almost always sold refrigerated and can be found in some larger grocery stores and most Asian markets (and all Japanese markets). It comes in light and dark varieties; the darker the miso, the richer the flavor. Miso can also be blended with rice vinegar and sesame oil to make a dressing or marinade. Finally, fermented tofu is sold in shelf-stable jars at Asian markets. For those who haven’t experienced it, it is salty and stinky, sold either plain or with chili peppers, and is gooey. The flavor is similar to fontina, a hard, salty Italian cheese. Used in small amounts, like adding to mashed potatoes, this adds a remarkably nice flavor and will be the only way to sneak it into anything. For the salt lovers, enjoy spread on bread, crackers or celery.
The Food: Buckwheat
Protein Score: 99. Another member of the vast grain family, buckwheat grows as small, triangular kernels and is usually tolerated by the wheat-free and gluten-free crowd (though not always). It can be purchased as a flour, its natural kernel state, or as a prepared food (like noodles or bread…or even beer). Due to its ability to grow in harsher climates, buckwheat is found in Eastern European cuisine so the whole buckwheat can be purchased in that section of your grocery store or at European markets. Buckwheat flour is found easily in organic or health food stores, with companies like Bob’s Red Mill making it available in most large grocery stores. Health/Organic stores often sell this in bulk as well. Buckwheat products, like breads and pastas, can be found in the same types of stores. Cheaper buckwheat noodles can be found in Asian markets. Soba is a popular buckwheat noodle, but is often mixed with regular wheat so watch out if you can’t have wheat. 100% buckwheat noodles are readily available, so just look…and ensure you don’t buy “black wheat noodles,” which are also found in Asian stores.
Buckwheat noodles are the easiest swap, just switch them out with regular noodles in any dish, hot or cold. Either use immediately or toss with an oil (like olive oil) because buckwheat noodles love to stick together. They have a slightly creamier taste and cook up very dark brown, so the mega picky may be visually skeptical. Buckwheat grains can be made on their own. They cook up quickly and easily, making a suitable replacement (or mix) with rice, quinoa, or other small grains. Use as you would rice. Buckwheat flour is the only tricky one since the taste, colour and texture are not the same as wheat, making it a difficult swap in baked goods. Exchaning some of the flour for buckwheat flour will give you more success. That’s not to say you can’t use it. I’ve used it to thicken soups and have combined it with seasoning and water to make a dough, which I used to make dumplings for a stew.
The Food: Amaranth
Protein Score: 101 (leaves), 108 (grain).This tiny ancient grain is usually fine for the wheat-free and gluten-free crowd. It comes in a few forms. The first is the whole grain, which companies like Bob’s Red Mill sell. The second type of amaranth you’ll see is in flour form, also carried by Bob’s Red Mill. I’ve only seen Bob’s Red Mill carry it as a stand-alone, with some breads or multi-grain mixtures adding it in there for extra texture and nutrition. Amaranth can also be found in its grown form, a leafy green. It comes in white, red, and burgundy. Availability of leafy amaranth depends on where you live, but so far I’ve only encountered it in Asian markets.
While the grain itself is small and calling it an “ancient grain” may leave you with the impression that you need to do an Amaranth Dance and say sacred prayers; it’s still just a small grain that cooks up like any other. If using the grain form, amaranth tends to cook up “goopy” as opposed to remaining in separated grains like quinoa. Because of this, it can be used as a hot breakfast (think porridge or Cream of Wheat/Rice or Malt-O-Meal), with your choice of milk (like hemp milk) and dried fruit thrown in. Tossing in sliced banana and a drizzle of real maple syrup and give yourself and your loved-ones a protein-packed, fiber-filled, complex and simple carb breakfast (if using hemp milk, bonus points for essential fats). You can also mix this half-and-half with mashed potatoes to up the texture and nutrient value. Oh, how do you cook it? 1 cup of amaranth + 2.5 cups of water (or juice or broth), bring to a boil and then cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed. Let it sit for a few minutes before stirring to allow the liquid to properly redistribute. Amaranth can also be popped like popcorn by adding a little oil into a pan on medium heat and tossing in the amaranth. Place a lid on the pot or pan you’re using and move around the burner (for even heat distribution) until the popping stops. Amaranth can also just be eaten as-is…apparently it’s technically a nut (8000 years in cultivation and we still call it a grain when it’s a nut? Kinda strange). Feel free to cook with chili, bean soups, lentil soup, rice, etc. to add more protein. Amaranth flour can be made into breads and other baked goods, and some companies already sell bread made with amaranth. As I said, I’m no baker so I don’t know the exact ratio swap for wheat flour. Amaranth greens can be sauteed like chard or served raw. To sneak it into your regular foods, try using it in addition to spinach in salads or in cooked meals, like spinach pie, a cooked spinach side dish, or spinach lasagna.
The Food: Spinach
Protein Score: 119. Yeah, can you believe it? Spinach contains all your essential amino acids! I don’t need to tell you that spinach is a good source of iron and vitamin A, but did you know one ounce of spinach contains 13% of your daily value of vitamin C and 3% of your daily value of calcium? That’s as much calcium as is found in an equal serving of milk! How cool is that?
Many of you are familiar with spinach use. I highly advocate using it in place of lousy lettuce in salads (do yourself one better and mix it with amaranth leaves or other leafy greens), but you can also mince it and use it in tacos, burritos, sandwiches, wraps and burgers. I like using inexpensive spinach in place of sometimes-pricey fresh basil when I make marinara sauces. No, the flavor is not the same but I do it for the nutrition and the green. Spinach also makes a great “bulker” in cooked food, adding a green bulk to mashed potatoes, lasagna, chili and any other semi-solid food you can think of.
The Food: Beans
Protein Score: 95-107. I know, everything you’ve been told about vegan protein includes “combining legumes with a grain to make a complete protein.” I was as shocked as you to learn that is 100% false. I know what you’re thinking: why do people say they don’t if they actually do? I wish I had the answer for you. Beans already contain all your essential amino acids, with the following fitting in the aforementioned protein score: chickpeas (garbanzo beans), black beans (turtle beans), Lima beans (immature seeds score higher than mature, which scored 95), pinto beans, white beans, Great Northern beans, kidney beans, and mungo beans all contain all your essential amino acids, providing between 13 and 19 grams of protein per cup. Awesome! Please note lentils are not on the list…they are missing one essential amino acid.
Beans are a fun one because they have more uses than “make into chili” or “add to minestrone soup,” although those are fabulous on their own. Bean soups are also popular ways to eat your beans and a great slow-cooker meal if you make it at the start of your day. Other ways to use beans are to puree into dips. Hummus is a popular dip made from chickpeas and tahini, but there’s no reason you can’t use other beans to make purees. Please remember that each bean has its own special flavor, so while you can mix black beans and tahini together, it won’t taste like hummus. Beans are also a great substitute for meat and fake meats because they have a great texture, are not processed (assuming you cook them at home…but even canned prepared beans are minimally processed) and provide all your essential amino acids. Another way to prepare beans is to mash them and add a type of flour (whole wheat, buckwheat, rice, etc.) to help hold it together and then form a patty or ball out of the mixture (don’t forget to season it!). These are then cooked and used as a replacement for meatballs or hamburger patties. You can also serve them without a bun and top them with various toppings, sort of like one could do with a slab of nasty meat.
The Food: Certain Nuts
Protein Score: 100-122. Please note: this is not to say ALL nuts contain all your EAAs…only some do (the picture is a stock photo…it is not a picture of the nuts that contain your EAAs). Acorns, cashews, chestnuts and pistachio nuts have the highest protein scores. Most other nuts do technically include your EAAs (with the exception of macadamia nuts, which are completely devoid of lysine) but are a little low in some of them so they didn’t break the 94 protein quality score. As you may read in the other nutrient sneak posts, many nuts are a good source of iron and calcium. Nuts also provide healthy fats that your body needs…fats that typically aren’t found in plant foods.
Nuts are interesting because they’re great to snack on, add to foods (chopped, slivered or whole), but are also cool because you can process them with a little water in a food processor to turn into a paste. This paste can be rolled and firmed up in the refrigerator to use as a cheese ball or even the fillings for homemade truffles! Simply soak raw cashews (or another nut listed above) in water for about an hour, drain the water, process and add seasonings, then roll and chill for at least 3 hours (for cheese ball) or 1 hour (for truffles…the balls are smaller so they don’t need to be chilled as long). There are easy recipes you can look up if you want to read something more exact :) I like adding chopped nuts to yogurt, stir fry, sandwiches, dips, chili, lentils, split peas, bean soups, and halved nuts to stew.
The Food: Certain Seeds
Protein Score: 115-136. Chia seeds, pumpkin/squash seeds (pepitas) and lotus seed. Flaxseed just missed making the cut by 2 points, so for you flax fans it’s still good for you :) Seeds can provide plenty of iron and calcium, with some like chia providing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Please note the picture is a picture of various seeds, not specifically the seeds listed.
Seeds are fun because you can throw them into anything, but the seeds here are best eaten or blended and added to smoothies. Chia seeds can be added whole to a liquid and create a little gel around themselves, so each one is like a tapioca pearl. I like it, but not everyone does. Seed meal (flour) can also be added to various baked goods or used as a thickening agent, which is another option for you. Some people also make seed butters, so if you really like how pepitas taste, consider doing that!
-I do not work for or advertise for any companies. I only mention these companies because I’ve seen them in multiple places so I’m suggesting certain brands that I think you may easily find in your local supermarkets.
-I have given full credit to the photos I used, but if one of these photos is yours and you don’t want it used for whatever reason, please let me know and I will promptly remove it.
-If you’re curious as to which foods have a full EAA profile, check out the food in the nutritiondata.com database.