Fava beans and buckwheat – how can we get more plant-based protein on people’s plates?

We can improve the carrying capacity of our planet by favouring plant-based foods over meat options. But how do beans and peas affect people’s health and digestion?

“Finns currently get their protein from so many sources that it’s quite the task to add them up,” says Anne-Maria Pajari, docent of nutrition.

Last year, Pajari and her associates conducted a three-month study with 150 Finnish volunteers. The subjects were divided into groups which were advised to follow a strict dietary plan, including a specific amount of protein.

“I was worried whether the participants would commit to the diet, as it would affect their lives so much. We provided a large part of the food they ate.”

One group of subjects was offered food with a protein intake based on the Finnish average. Seventy per cent of the protein in their diet consisted of animal products: dairy, fish and other meat, and eggs. For the second group, the ratio of animal proteins was 50%, and for the third group, 30%.

LEAVING BRAZILIAN SOY BEHIND

Finns get most of their plant-based protein from pasta, bread and other grain products, as well as potato and rice. The protein sources added to the diet plans in the study included, in particular, broad beans, buckwheat, soy, quinoa, nuts, almonds and seeds.

“We replaced some of the cheese, dairy and meat in people’s diets with legumes. We favoured local sources of protein, but were unable to use all-Finnish products because we had to ensure that each group got the same – fairly large – amount of protein from their diet as well as a sufficient amount of essential amino-acids.”

Pajari hopes Finns would use a wider range of domestic protein sources. “Turnip rape, lupin and flax are all interesting options. They contain a fair amount of protein as well as valuable fatty acids and fibre.”

Pajari’s project is associated with the ScenoProt research consortium, which focuses on the replacement of animal proteins with plant-based ones. The project and its related studies have received strategic research funding from the Academy of Finland. This sought-after funding requires that the researchers connect with other parties in society at large to find solutions to major social issues.

“We have to get serious about changing our food habits when we consider our planet’s carrying capacity and climate change.” The researchers’ aim is to encourage Finland to increase its protein self-sufficiency from less than 20% to 60%. Basically, this means a decrease in the consumption of Brazilian soy.

JARS OF BLOOD

The ScenoProt consortium also carries out research and development on the ecological and employment effects of food production, but Pajari and her colleagues on the Viikki Campus focus specifically on health.

“It’s not been all blood, sweat and tears, but we did collect a lot of blood, urine and stool samples at the beginning and conclusion of the research period,” Pajari states. The researchers also conducted glucose tolerance tests.

The analyses have not been completed yet, and the researchers still have a long list of things to. The samples will be studied for markers of nutritional status, such as iron, zinc, iodine, phosphorus, calcium as well as folate and other vitamins. Signs of type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer will also be investigated.

Pajari herself has a background in research on cancer. “International population-level studies have established a connection between colorectal cancer and a high consumption of red meat, but the causal relationship is not fully known.”

Many of the studies have been conducted in the United States, where food preferences differ from those in Europe: Americans eat less fibre and more red meat, which is often barbecued.

NO SHORTAGE OF PROTEIN

Pajari is eagerly expecting her own research results because no similarly extensive and thorough intervention studies on the increase of plant-based proteins have previously been published. But she does not believe the findings will be radical: “Our subjects were basically healthy individuals, and none of the groups followed an extreme diet.”

She stresses that sufficient protein intake is not a problem in Finland. Dietary recommendations suggest that proteins should account for 10–20% of the total energy consumed by adults. The average for Finns is approximately 17%.

CRAVINGS FOR CHEESE

Pajari describes the study participants as highly motivated. “We were pleasantly surprised that 136 individuals of the original group of 150 completed the entire three-month research period.”

She thinks that some of those who withdrew from the study were disappointed that the diet offered to them was not ultra-healthy or did not correspond to the ideal of “unprocessed and real” food. “One of the participants jokingly referred to the ready-meals on offer by saying that the study was a conspiracy to normalise the orthorexics of Helsinki.”

While some participants frowned on the ready-meals, others had different experiences. “Quite a few of the participants in the more plant-orientated groups missed cheese and planned a fondue party to celebrate the end of the research period.”

Offering the participants recipes proved to be important, Pajari says. The research participants gave particular praise for the tips on how to use pea flour and processed fava beans. “Use the flour to make pancakes,” suggests Pajari.

STOMACH REMEDIES

Pajari hopes that the study and the experiences the participants recorded in journals will draw the attention of food technologists, as the processing of legumes needs new inventions. It became clear during the study that some people have trouble digesting the proteins in legumes.

“Some people had very bad digestive problems that continued even after the three-month period when their gut microbes should have had enough time to adjust to processing the new type of food.”

The microbes in the stool samples taken during ScenoProt will provide detailed information, but supplementary studies are needed. “For now, surprisingly little has been done to address the digestive issues. New technologies would also help people living in poor countries, whose protein intake is often deficient.”

FAST OR SLOW?

Anne-Maria Pajari says that the matter should also interest product developers and the food industry. For her own study, she succeeded in recruiting several food companies as sponsors. “Thanks to them, the participants’ diet included both traditional ready-meals, such as fish soup, and more recent innovations, including fava bean mince and pulled oats.”

Pajari notes that some people want to cook their own vegetarian food from scratch, including the soaking of beans, but some participants in the study were enthusiastic about how easy-to-use the ready-meals were. “We definitely have different tastes.”

This article was published in Finnish in the Y/06/18 issue of Yliopisto magazine.

A teenager switches from meat to vegetables – how is the family affected? 

Vegetarian and vegan diets have recently become a popular research topic, studied by dozens of laboratories and research teams in various disciplines. Katri Pellikka, a soon-to-graduate home economics teacher from the University of Helsinki, is one of those who have studied the subject.

Her master’s thesis focuses on secondary and upper secondary school pupils who have decided to reduce their meat eating for environmental reasons. “I was interested in how the family is affected when an adolescent changes their eating habits. Are conflicts inevitable?”

Pellikka gathered data on six families living in the southern parts of Finland. She first asked the adolescents to take photos of everything they ate over a week and then interviewed them and their parents. “The young people sent me both carefully designed, stylish shots of their meals and quick snaps of snacks and empty plates.”

Pellikka says that the adolescents she interviewed were sensible eaters, flexible in their choices and able to justify their decisions.

They had had to come up with explanations that satisfied their parents. Pellikka’s prediction of conflicts resulting from the decision to eschew meat turned out to be mostly flawed.

The families usually ate the same food, with some variation where necessary. “I found no family cooking one meal of beef casserole for meat eaters and another of vegetable stir-fry for others.”

Creative solutions have become easier as the inconvenience of cooking has been outsourced to the food industry, Pellikka says. Meat replacements are now available from almost all shops.

One of Pellikka’s supervisors is an educational scientist from the University of Helsinki, while the other is employed at the Finnish Environment Institute and works in the Academy of Finland funded project Politics, practices and the transformative potential of sustainable diets, which also includes sociologists from the University of Helsinki.