Research shows that a surprising number of American shoppers have an incorrect understanding of the protein content of foods. Further, many are looking solely at grams of protein on packaged products, rather than exploring the ingredient statement and percent Daily Value (DV), which provides a better picture of the quality of protein.

Protein is one of the three major macronutrients needed to sustain life. It plays a role in every cell of the body and is vital to performing essential functions, such as building and repairing cells and keeping the immune system strong. Therefore, it’s vital that a person’s diet include the proper amount — and type — of this nutrient throughout the day.

Many consumers do not understand that most protein from plants is incomplete, meaning it doesn’t provide all of the essential amino acids the body needs, but can’t make. Further, there’s research suggesting protein from plant sources isn’t as readily absorbed as proteins from animal-based foods.

“Most consumers seek ‘grams of protein’ on a front label, yet few understand that all proteins are not created equal, or much less read ingredient labels to understand the source or type,” said Veronique Lagrange, director of strategy and business development, American Dairy Products Institute, Elmhurst, Illinois. 

Proteins vary in their individual amino acid composition and their level of amino acid bioactivity, among other attributes. Products that carry a “good source of protein” claim must provide more than 10 percent DV of protein per serving, while those making an “excellent source of protein” claim must contain more than 20 percent DV. That does not simply translate to 5 grams and 10 grams of protein per serving. It’s 5 grams and 10 grams of “high-quality” protein.

That’s because the percent Daily Value for protein is determined using the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS), which is an adjustment for the quality of the protein. It is based on the types and amounts of amino acids in the food as well as the overall digestibility. The PDCAAS values range from 0.0 to 1.0, where values are truncated to a maximum score of 1.00, which most animal proteins as well soy protein all possess. Most plant protein sources have much lower values. Thus, a beef jerky snack containing 10 grams of protein may make an “excellent source of protein” claim. A vegan alternative form with 10 grams of protein from wheat and peas most likely only qualifies for a “good source of protein” claim. When making or implying any protein content claim, the US Food and Drug Administration requires the inclusion of the percent DV to support the protein claim.

“The amount of protein a person needs depends on a variety of factors: age, height, weight gender, activity/exercise, medical history and diseases,” said Leah McGrath, a registered dietitian based in North Carolina. “Many Americans may be getting enough protein but often don’t spread it out throughout the day.

“While there are plant-based sources of protein, like beans, grains, nuts and even protein found in small amounts in vegetables, you typically must eat larger quantities of plant-based products to get protein,” she noted. “Additionally, animal products also contain other vitamins and minerals like iron, B12 and zinc that many plant/grain-based products either don’t have or have in small amounts.”

“Many of these alternative protein items or plant-based proteins are a mixture of various ingredients, more like a recipe,” McGrath added. “So, this may present challenges in terms of the nutritional content, taste, texture and food allergies that animal products would not. Also, many of these alternative or plant-based products may be higher in price and may not be as versatile for home cooks.”

Consumer research by Nielsen found that many people didn’t make the grade when quizzed on their protein knowledge. When asked about poultry, 58 percent of consumers who responded to the survey failed to identify chicken as a high-protein source.

Of the shoppers polled, 78 percent overestimated the protein content of peanut butter, which only contains 8 grams of protein per two tablespoons. To compare, a 4-oz. chicken breast contains 25 grams of protein.

Chicken is easily digestible and often the most budget-friendly of lean protein options. Additionally, protein from chicken contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a “complete protein.” Studies indicate that eating poultry, as part of a vegetable-rich diet, can reduce the risk of obesity, cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes. 

“Chicken can be a lean and economical source of protein, and meat from chicken is also a source of various vitamins and minerals, like niacin iron, and selenium,” McGrath said. “One of the things I appreciate about chicken is how versatile it is. From roasting a whole chicken for my Sunday dinner to strips of grilled chicken on a salad, in a quesadilla or taco, or using chicken meat in a soup or stew, there are lots of ways to enjoy chicken, not just for the protein but also for the taste.”