Plant-forward: how nuts compare with other plant proteins for human and planetary health

Nut protein for human and planetary health

As we head into 2021, the trend towards plant-based and plant-forward eating shows no signs of abating. In fact, a recent review of trends found that 56% of consumers across the globe are trying to eat more plant-based foods. This rise in vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian approaches to eating is motivated by concerns about health and wellbeing as well as a growing consciousness of the impact of what we eat on the health of the planet.

Fortunately, there is emerging evidence behind the idea that plant-forward eating is good for both human and planetary health. But as research and innovation continues to develop new forms of protein to meet the needs of plant-curious consumers, a new review of the literature highlights several ways in which nuts offer many positives compared to the other plant-based proteins on the market.

A recent literature review by Nuts for Life1 assessed the health effect of nut protein when compared to the other common plant protein foods including soy, legumes and grains. This review showed that nuts have certain advantages over other plant protein foods in terms of their total protein content, as well as  other  nutritional advantages.

Plant proteins are health supportive

The World Health Organisation, as well as groups like the EAT-Lancet Commission, have been urging consumers towards reduced meat intake for several years now, and it appears that message is filtering through. It is common for consumers across the globe to cite health impacts when choosing a plant-based diet.

The recent Nuts for Life literature review confirmed that there is good evidence that plant proteins support human health. It showed that an increased intake of plant-based protein (including nuts) is associated with improved health outcomes in three key areas:

  1. Cardiovascular disease (CVD): Increasing an individual’s intake of plant-based protein was associated with improvements in the markers of CVD and an overall reduction in CVD.
  2. Type 2 diabetes: Increasing plant-based protein was associated with a reduction in the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  3. Mortality: Plant based protein was associated with a reduction in mortality from all causes.

Exactly how and why plant proteins bring about these positive health outcomes is currently unclear, however it could be due to the presence of certain types of amino acids (protein building blocks) and their combined effects. When compared with animal protein sources, plant protein sources are higher in arginine and cysteine, and lower in leucine and histidine, which may explain plant proteins’ beneficial and protective effects on health.

Macadamia muesli

How nuts stack up

Although plant proteins have many positive health associations, not all plant proteins are equal. The literature review showed that in terms of total protein intake, nuts generally have a higher total protein content, compared with other common plant protein sources. 

However, it wasn’t just total protein where nuts outperformed other forms of plant-based protein. They are higher (or equivalent) than their counterparts in a wide array of micro-nutrients essential for human health. Generally:

  • Nuts are higher in healthy fats, melatonin and minerals like phosphorus, copper and manganese than other plant proteins
  • Nuts are one of the richest plant sources of the amino acids arginine and cysteine
  • Nut protein is lower in threonine, tryptophan, isoleucine and lysine, and other sulphuric amino acids
  • When compared to legumes, in particular, nuts are lower in “anti-nutrients” like tannins and saponins, that inhibit the absorption of some essential nutrients.

There is also emerging evidence that plant protein from nuts is more effective at reducing death from cardiovascular disease than other plant proteins, but more research is needed to be able to claim this with certainty.

Good for health, good for the planet

The Nuts for Life review stated that there is evidence that changing dietary patterns to feature more plant-based foods can have a significant effect on environmental health. The EAT-Lancet Commission, in its report on Food, Planet and Health2, concluded that the global intake of nuts is required to double from current consumption levels to meet recommendations for improved human and planetary health.

This suggests that nut protein is an important inclusion in manufactured products if they are going to support consumers in a shift towards a plant-based diet that can contribute to the health of the planet.

Nut snack bar

In addition to this, transparency around ingredients and sourcing is emerging as a key concern for consumers across the board. Consumers are increasingly demanding about what will make them feel good about a food purchase. Being delicious and flavourful is no longer enough on its own. Products must also be healthy and tick boxes in terms of sustainability and provenance. Among the plant proteins, nuts are the natural leader in this space and fit well into this narrative. As natural wholefoods, nuts (especially Australian grown macadamias) are readily understandable, require less processing and have strong stories of quality and provenance.

For more information on the health advantages of nut proteins, please contact Nuts for Life or Australian Macadamias Market Development Manager Jacqui Price.

1 The effect of plant and nut protein on human and planetary health, literature scope commissioned by Nuts for Life and conducted by Nutrition Research Australia 2020
2 Willet WW. et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet Commissions, 2019. 393(10170): 447-92.

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