Monday, 9 February 2015

chicken breasts: cheap protein?

On Woman's Hour today (BBC Radio 4) presenter Jane Garvey and contributors Laura Gardiner and Emma Hogan were talking about the cost of living. Jane said this:-

So if you’re on the average (or in fact well below average) income (as one of the women there illustrated) you actually have to make this work. You have to be able to feed your family with a couple of cheap defrosting chicken breasts, don’t you, that’s as good as it’s going to get.
To which Laura replied:-

That’s absolutely right. Emma’s mentioned wages have been stagnant for far longer than we thought and it’s not just energy prices that have been rising faster than inflation. We know that other essentials such as food and transport have gone faster than the average inflation rate and these are the things that low income families particularly those with children tend to spend more of their incomes on.
So it seems that people think that chicken breasts are cheap food. First of all, chicken thighs are cheaper than chicken breasts and have more flavour. Secondly, meat is an expensive form of protein. Pulses, and especially yellow split peas, are much cheaper in terms of cost of protein than meat or cheese. Thirdly, people overestimate how much protein they need. They are wasting their money buying chicken breasts.

Linda Geddes in the New Scientist magazine last month (24/01/15) wrote about meat 'The Raw Facts'. She started the article with this:-

Meat is a one-stop shop for essential amino acids - the ones the body needs to build proteins but can't make on its own. It is also a rich source of vitamin B12, iron and protein, all of which are often lacking in plant-based foods.
She is implying that there are some essential amino acids missing from plant based foods. That's not true. In plants the amounts of each of the amino acids aren't ideal. Grains, for example, don't have as much lysine as we would like. Pulses, however, are rich in lysine. So vegetarians don't normally have a problem, especially because if we have more protein than we need then we'll be getting enough lysine even just from grains. Most people eat far more protein than they need.

On page 33 it compares different sources of protein. Salmon has the most B12, about double that of meat. Eggs have it too, more than meat. Kidney beans have the most iron. So it isn't true that iron and protein are 'often lacking in plant-based foods'. If you eat marmite you can get both B12 and protein.

Another misleading thing she writes is:-

As well as vitamins and the like, meat contains a lot of protein for its calorie content, so although other foods give us protein too, meat is the most efficient source. Avoiding it could make it harder to get a healthy, balanced diet.
The word 'calorie' has a negative connotation because if we have too many calories we tend to put on weight. However, we need to get at least a couple of thousand calories per day. She implies that if we try to get all the protein we need from plant sources then that will tend to take us over the couple of thousand calories we need. That is not true at all, just the opposite. It's very easy to get enough protein.

Even if you take a relatively low protein food such as pasta, if you eat enough of it to get enough calories then you will be getting enough protein. You need about two thirds of a kilo of pasta to get the number of calories an average person needs. Pasta is 11% protein so that means more than 70g of protein. We only need 50g of protein per day, so - even allowing for less than the ideal amount of lysine - you will be getting enough protein. So it doesn't make any sense to say 'meat is the most efficient source'.

If you buy cheap pork sausages, you might suppose that they would be cheap protein. However, they can be just 12% protein, which is only just above pasta. Also, according to the information on the back of the back, that's after grilling. I would expect them to lose water during the grilling process, so they could be lower in protein than pasta. Neither cheap sausages nor cheap chicken breasts offer as good value in terms or grams of protein per penny as pasta or (if you want a high protein source) yellow split peas. The same with calories per penny.

Also last month, The Times published an interesting article (28/01/15) and editorial 'Save the world? Give beef the chop, travel less and eat more vegetables'. A report from the Department of Energy and Climate Change suggests eating less beef. Beef requires a lot of resources to produce, 28.5 square metres of land to produce one kilo of beef per year. The article doesn't make it clear if they are talking about cattle grazing outdoors or cattle eating maize and soya.

It doesn't require as much land to produce chicken, pork or grains. The article seems to be suggesting that chicken and pork production should be increased, which I don't think is such a good thing. I would prefer it if people eat a lot less beef, but also less chicken and pork.

Another thing I don't agree with in the article is that beef production should be more intensive. If you have an area of land where you can't grow crops but there is grass then you can have cattle or sheep on it. So a hillside in Wales, for example. Also where you have fields left fallow for a year. There shouldn't be any cattle kept indoors and fed on grains and soya. Some chickens for their meat and eggs perhaps, but we should be eating more grains and pulses and feeding much less of them to farm animals.