Since I first started cooking for myself in college, I’ve found myself making more and more meatless dishes. Originally my tight student budget was to blame. But as I began see the monetary, health, and environmental benefits of eating less meat, I started making a more conscious effort to cut back on the amount of meat in my diet. Of course, I like meat too much to ever become a full-on vegetarian, so I was really inspired by this TED Talk about being a weekday vegetarian:
And with delicious vegetarian options like this spicy eggplant and tofu stir fry, I have no problem giving up meat most of the week.
Thinking about meat and vegetarianism always makes me think about protein. We’ve all been told at some point or another that food like meat is a good source of protein… but what exactly is it?
Proteins are rather large molecules (aka “macromolecules”) made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids. These amino acids can be strung together to form longer chains (peptides), which can then fold into the three-dimensional structures we know as proteins.
Proteins are found in all living organisms and are made up of a common set of twenty amino acids. Some of these amino acids are even named after the (food) source from which they were first isolated:
Asparagine was first found in asparagus, and glutamate in wheat gluten; tyrosine was first isolated from cheese (its name is derived from the Greek tyros, “cheese”); and glycine (Greek glykos, “sweet”) was so named because of its sweet taste.
Proteins are essential to the function of our cells. Some proteins provide structural support much in the same way our skeletons provide support to our bodies. Other proteins, known as enzymes, can chemically modify biological molecules like fats, sugars, and even other proteins. And as if that weren’t complicated enough, some amino acids also play important non-protein roles (glutamate, for example, is a neurotransmitter).
When we eat, the proteins we ingest are broken down into their component amino acids. These amino acids can then be reused by our cells to make new proteins or be broken down further for energy and elements like carbon and nitrogen. Because proteins are found in all living things, it’s possible (just slightly more difficult) to get all the protein you need without ever eating meat. But enough about proteins — we’ll save the rest of this discussion for another day.