Nuts and the search for sustainable protein

Lots of people worry about protein and nuts are full of it. But are nuts more sustainable than meat?

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Frank Holleman | 07-12-2021

Main learning: Nuts and seeds are an easy and sustainable source of protein
Goal: Eat more nuts and seeds
ImpactMedium 🌍🌎🌏⚪️⚪️ (because you need less protein from meat)

We all know that meat has a lot of protein. So if you leave it away, how do you get enough?

Too many vegetarian recipes forget to add a protein source. This has created the stereotype that vegetarian meals don’t fill and leave you hungry.

It doesn’t have to be that way. This week I want to explore how nuts compare to meat as a source of protein.

Nuts vs. Meat

How sustainable are nuts? Like always, the complete answer is complicated.

Some nuts require too much water while other nuts are harvested by workers who don’t get paid enough.

But at the end of the day, we have to make a choice and eat something. So what we’re going to look at is the amount of protein, price, and CO2 emissions and compare them to beef and chicken.

Protein

This chart shows how much protein these different foods have.

Chart of protein per 100 g | Peanuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds.

What this chart doesn’t compare is the serving size. It’s normal to eat a 150 g chicken breast in one meal but not to eat 150 g of peanuts. So it’s true that it’s easier to get lots of protein from meat.

However, with the average Dutch diet of eating meat every day, people actually eat too much protein. This is a waste of precious food since the extra protein ends up in the toilet.

A 30-year-old man needs around 63 g per day and a woman 54 g. So it’s important to include protein sources throughout the day, but you don’t need meat to get there (here is an example).

Price

Nuts have a reputation to be expensive. So I went to the website of the biggest Dutch supermarket and looked up the price per kg for these different foods.

Chart of price per kg | Peanuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds.

Climate Impact

Last but not least, it’s time to look at the CO2 emissions. It’s clear that the impact of meat is on a different level. The other conclusion is that chicken is a lot better than beef (and other types of meat).

Chart of kg CO2-e per kg | Peanuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds.
These numbers are from the Dutch ministry for health and environment. Their numbers for peanuts seem quite high compared to the usual source I use (Poore & Nemecek) where they give beef and chicken the same number but have much lower numbers for peanuts (3,2) and all other nuts. But even this way you can see a huge difference.

Conclusion: are nuts sustainable?

The answer is yes. By comparing these numbers I learned some new things about nuts.

  1. All nuts are a great and sustainable protein option.
  2. Peanuts have higher CO2 emissions than other nuts but also have more protein and they’re a lot cheaper. That’s good news for my peanut butter addiction.
  3. Pumpkin-, flax- and sunflower seeds have a lot of protein, are not too expensive and also have very low emissions.

In terms of taste, sunflower seeds are the most diverse. You can add them to anything: rice, pasta, muesli. That’s why I think sunflower seeds are the winner of this comparison.

I will experiment with pumpkin and sunflower seeds and see where I can diversify my protein so I eat more than just peanut butter

There are always issues with certain kinds of nuts. But if you’re eating nuts instead of meat, you’re reducing your impact by at least half.

Are you eating enough nuts? What are your thoughts on nuts and protein? Let me know in the comments!

Tips for how to eat more nuts

  • Nuts and seeds through yoghurt or oatmeal
  • Peanut butter sandwich
  • Almonds as a snack
  • Walnuts through a pasta dish
  • Sunflower seeds on top of pasta or cooked in rice
  • Cashews in a rice recipe

Recipes to put this learning into action

This week’s recipes use nuts or seeds to add more protein to a meal.

  • Peanut fruit curry
  • Saffron spaghetti (add walnuts or sunflower seeds)
  • Peanut butter noodles
  • Sweet potato roast (with walnuts)