Getting Protein

Thursday, November 14, 2019

What is protein? How are complentary proteins used across cultures?

What is Protein?

Proteins are large molecules made up of smaller units called amino acids. Protein is present in all body cells and takes part in most biological processes. It’s readily available in meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs, but vegetarians and vegans need to choose plant foods or combinations of foods that provide adequate protein.


Why do we need it?

Proteins provide amino acids that  are used to build and maintain bones, muscles and skin, and produce enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and antibodies.1 To function properly, the body needs 22 different amino-acids, and  nine of them (the essential amino acids) must be obtained from food.


How much do we need?

The daily protein recommendation for adults is 0.8 g for every kg of body weight, (about 50 grams for a 60 kg person*).3 Because the body rapidly turns over protein stores, people need to consume adequate amounts of the amino acids that make up proteins in order to maintain good health.2


Complete your profile

Some foods contain all of the essential amino acids you need in sufficient quantities. These are known as complete protein sources. Along with meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy, you can also get complete proteins from plants such as quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, soy, hemp, and chia seeds.

Foods that don’t contain all nine essential amino-acids are known as incomplete protein sources. While they don’t offer enough essential amino acids on their own, they can be combined with a variety of other foods throughout the day to provide an adequate intake of quality proteins. Examples include nuts and seeds, legumes, grains, and vegetables.3


Complementary proteins across cultures

You don’t have to look far to find examples of foods that complement each other to provide all of the amino acids you need. All around the world, traditional dishes have found a way to satisfy people’s hunger, tastes, and basic protein needs by relying on plant crops. Traditional plant-based dishes that offer a complete amino acid profile include:

  • Mexico: Black beans  with corn and/or rice
  • Lebanon: Falafel and  tahini-based sauce
  • Morocco: Couscous  with chickpeas
  • Ethiopia: Injera (flat bread  made with teff flour) with  wat (lentil stew)
  • Punjab region, North India:  Kaali daal (black lentils)  with rice
  • Switzerland: Muesli (nuts and grains)
  • South Africa: Samp (corn) and beans


  1. 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization study.
  2. Proteins: The Facts. Compiled by the  Nestlé Research Center.
  3. USDA; FAO/WHO/UNICEF Protein Advisory Group, 2004.