A plant-based diet
Making big dreams come true with the smallest plant in the world.
Water lentils, the smallest plant on earth with big plans for the future. For some, perhaps earlier known as duckweed, the plant that provides a green blanket over the ditches in the Netherlands. Mainly known for ducks as a delicious meal. But not for much longer. This plant has the potential to become part of our daily meal. It contains a lot of protein, making it a good meat substitute, but also makes us dream about a world with less food shortage.
Vegetable protein transition
The increase in the consumption of meat is faster than the growth in the number of people on earth. To produce one kilo of meat, an average of 3 kilos of vegetable feed is needed. This can lead to a shortage of vegetable protein sources, such as nuts, seeds or, for example, peas, especially if we want to continue to provide the entire world population, which continues to grow, with food (and proteins). “The increase in meat is accelerating because more and more people are adopting a Western lifestyle, which is accompanied by greater prosperity,” Ingrid van der Meer, plant researcher and molecular biologist at Wageningen University, tells me. The solution is to look for other protein sources and to adapt our diet slightly more to vegetable sources than animal sources. “I certainly don’t think everyone should become vegan or vegetarian,” adds researcher van der Meer. “Animals are still very much needed in a sustainable circular food system and there are also certain food components that are not, or very difficult, to get only from plants. A shift from 60:40 (animal versus vegetable) to 40:60 would help enormously.”
Such a sustainable circular food system means that food is produced in the most sustainable way possible. For example, a more plant-based diet is better for the environment because of lower CO2 emissions and a lower water footprint, an amount that indicates how much fresh water is needed to produce all the goods and services needed for your food. The use of animals is also important here, because they are still needed to eat certain plants or residual flows that we, humans, cannot digest ourselves. Think of grass, stems of crops that are grown, but also residual flows from the food processing industry or the food that we throw away every day. “We use much more of an animal than just the meat that ends up on our plates. The animal is part of our system for producing food,” explains Ingrid van der Meer.
Besides the fact that a more plant-based diet is good for the environment, it also has health benefits. It is known that a diet that consists of more plant sources is better for health because there are more nutrients in plants that people ingest. Think of dietary fibers for the proper functioning of your intestines and your immune system that protects you against diseases, but also vitamins and minerals.
To get rid of a meat-dominated diet, there are several alternative protein sources that can be used: Vegetable proteins (beans, lentils), insects (mealworms, grasshoppers) and protein sources from the water. If we look at the last group, the protein sources from the water, then seaweed, algae and water lentils are hopeful replacements that are currently being researched. Ingrid van der Meer accidentally discovered the nutritional possibilities of water lentils when she researched the plant for medical applications. These water lentils contain much more proteins than seaweed and algae and can also be digested more easily because the cell walls of water lentils are much less sturdy than those of, for example, seaweed.
There are different types of water lentils, but the most hope for the future now lies in the Lemna variety. It can be grown in many different climates and can withstand a variety of conditions such as fluctuations in temperature and growing in low nutrient conditions. In addition, water lentils also grow very quickly, namely exponentially, in a certain period of time with a fixed percentage. Another big advantage is that no agricultural land is needed, it can grow in a greenhouse but also via vertical farming. As the name implies, this is a form of agriculture in which growing beds are stacked vertically.
Water lentils are also packed with proteins whose amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, meet the requirements of the WHO, the World Health Organization. It contains more essential amino acids, amino acids that we have to get through food and that our body cannot make itself, than most other crops. For example, the plant is very rich in vitamin E, which plays an important role as an antioxidant. This means that it counteracts a certain oxidation in our body, which protects our cells, tissues, blood vessels and organs. In addition to vitamin E, water lentils are also rich in vitamin B5. This vitamin helps with our energy supply by building and breaking down proteins and fats.
From discovery to the supermarket
“In 1644, according to an Old Dutch herbal book, water lentils were already used as a medicine in the Netherlands, it is also eaten in several Asian countries and the food safety authority of the United States has already approved the plant,” Ingrid sums up. “Yet the EFSA, European Food Safety Authority, is not yet convinced, so we need to do more studies and analyzes to demonstrate safety. Still, I expect approval at the end of this year.” After this approval, the process follows from production to processing the products, which require all kinds of companies, growers, but also more financing to eventually get them into the supermarket. In the supermarket there is a good chance that it is in ready-to-use products such as soup or in ready-to-use vegetable bags. It is also possible in the form of frozen cubes, such as with spinach. “I personally see it as a new vegetable and we have already shown that, just like lettuce, it can be sold as a fresh product in a certain packaging,” says Ingrid.
Water lentils as a dish?
“Chefs have already started working with the water lentils and the consumer survey is positive,” says Ingrid van der Meer. For two weeks, volunteers participated in tasting different dishes with water lentils and as a control they were given the same dish with spinach. The dishes of both vegetables scored the same on taste. It will therefore mainly take place as an addition to a dish and not be a dish in itself. In addition, there is also the possibility to make meat substitutes with it.
How does the plant taste? It’s best to try it yourself in (perhaps already) a year. If it’s up to the ducks, there’s no doubt that it’s tasty and good for the future too.
This article is translated from Dutch to English via Google Translate.