Thinking and Speaking: Protein

In other posts I have brought up the fact that language can affect one’s understanding of how and what we feed our pets. Here’s an example of a term that everyone probably thinks they know how to apply, but might not: PROTEIN. I hear this word used in so many ways that I think it merits a solid examination of what it actually means, how we as raw feeders use it, and how a good understanding of it can help us feed the best possible diet we are capable of providing. I know it may sound silly, but I’m going to re-introduce you to protein and propose that we as a community endeavor to consider our words for sake of clarity and understanding.

The other day I was spending some time in an online group for raw feeders, and someone was recounting a conversation with a person who said that only ‘one protein’ was needed in a raw diet because ‘all protein is the same’. I felt the proverbial light bulb turn on, as in this one little anecdote is a way to explain a much bigger issue. Let’s start with this one: Referring to meat and animal products as “proteins”. If you don’t frequent online forums and other communities where people discuss raw feeding, perhaps you’ve been spared this misuse of terminology. I know a lot of Pack Lunch readers come to the site through social media, however, so bear with me. I think there’s something for everyone here.

You hear all the time in online groups currently, “Feed at least three proteins”. You run into people wondering about the nutrients in “a protein”, whether some “proteins” are easier to digest than others, and so on. While in a way these questions could make sense, these people are actually talking about animals and/or cuts of meat, not actual protein molecules. This creates confusion that gives rise to questions like, “What is the vitamin content of that protein?” I might be splitting hairs or being too picky (I’ve been accused of being pedantic before, and I’m sure I will again), but I feel that a person who could phrase such a question might be missing out on some key information required for proper meal planning.

Let’s break it down. What is protein? Proteins are molecules that consist of chains of amino acids. [Definitions and more info on molecules and amino acids is readily available on the ‘net. I’ll leave you to explore that on your own if you feel you need further explanation. I don’t want to slip down the rabbit hole where we descend the scale of matter and enter the realm of quantum mechanics with the end result being, “Nevermind feeding the dog, do I even exist?!”] Plants and animals are “made out of” lots of things. Proteins are one ‘ingredient’. Proteins are not all the same. A being’s genes dictate how many of what amino acids are put together in what way to create a certain protein. There is a near infinite combination of amino acid configurations, and different proteins have different functions. A cow doesn’t just have cow genes that make one identifiable cow protein. A dog’s genes don’t make just one protein we call ‘dog’. (source) While science has come to the point that we know some of the protein forms to expect in a type of animal and might be able to identify the tissue of a certain species based on that, well… it’s really complicated. There’s a field of study called structural genomics that is working on it, but it’ll probably be a while before knowledge in this area is advanced to the point that a reliable database exists. A human body has hundreds of thousands of different proteins. (source) I can’t find a citable statement but I’m going to take an educated guess that dogs and cats and most of their food animals do too.

Animals need to ingest other plants and animals to stay alive. Doing so is one of the very things that makes an animal an animal. One of the many things that animals get from their food is protein. Proteins are eaten as food, and as part of the digestive process protein molecules as they existed in the original food item are broken down into smaller units or single constituent amino acids. Then the body takes those and assembles them into the protein forms required by the eater’s body. There are about 20 amino acids that are relevant to a discussion of protein and food, and ten of them are ‘essential‘ for both dogs and cats. These are: Arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. (source) (I’ll mention that taurine is often called an amino acid, though it’s technically not. Taurine is an essential nutrient for cats, but not for dogs or, incidentally, people.)

Usually the sum of the amino acids as “protein” is the focus of nutrition talks, but really it’s about the combinations of amino acids that make up that protein content that is most important, as each essential amino acid needs to be fed in certain amounts for good health. We don’t really need to concern ourselves with individual amino acid content as a daily thing, and you really don’t need to have a thorough understanding of it to feed a raw diet properly. The fact is that most diets with adequate protein will provide the essential amino acids, but the concept is worth considering and filing away in the foundation knowledge that supports your understanding of nutrition and the diet you feed your pets (and eat yourself).

The types and amounts of proteins in a food item depend on what that food item is. Plants can contribute protein, and so can animals, of course. From the info presented above we know that each plant/animal consumed contributes it’s own proteins, which are made up of various combinations of amino acids. In this we can start to examine the quality of the protein. Protein quality from a nutritional perspective is defined by its amino acid profile — how completely and efficiently the food provides the essential amino acids required by the animal eating it. You might very well be familiar with this concept. Many people who come to raw feeding do so after learning about the short-comings of kibble and other processed food diets that get some or even all of their protein content from grains and legumes. We learn that while technically grains and other plant sources can deliver ‘complete’ and even ‘balanced’ nutrition (when carefully processed, formulated, and combined with other ingredients and supplements), it’s just not the greatest way to achieve it. Carnivores — our dogs and cats — are best suited to derive their required nutrients from animal sources. With meat you get complete proteins (a good amino acid profile) without a lot of additional stuff like excessive carbohydrates or fiber.

This table shows that while all plants and animals have proteins to contribute, the food sources are not equal, and the proteins are not all the same. Plants contain less overall protein than animal products, and the amino acids are distributed differently from plant to plant, and differently than they are in meat. Most raw feeders have firmly grasped the nutritional superiority of a species-appropriate diet and only use plant matter as “functional foods“, supplemental matter, and/or treats — if at all — but I think it helps with the ‘big picture’.

Concluding this thought, a raw diet is going to be meat and animal products, not just some vague concept of a protein. Going back to the beginning of the article where we had a person saying that feeding more than ‘one protein’ (by which they meant animal) wasn’t important because “all protein is the same”, well, to summarize: No way. No how. It’s totally not. Not even close.

A source of protein …and more! This brings us to the terms “meat” and “animal products”. If protein is actually just little intangible chains of things you can’t even see, then what’s that hunk of stuff you just gave the dog for dinner? That’s meat. Meat is the proverbial “bread and butter” of a raw diet. (I’m sorry, that’s awful but I couldn’t resist.) One of the first things you learn as a raw feeder is that meat, bones, and organs are all important, but in a certain proportion. Meat should make up between 70% and 80% of the overall diet — a significant amount. Meat is the flesh of animals, and in culinary terms can also mean the whole animal — bones and organs included. For our purposes in talking about raw feeding, when we say “meat” we generally mean the muscle-meat parts of an animal, which includes skeletal muscle (what most people associate with the word ‘meat’), smooth muscle (like the stomach), and the heart. In addition to actual muscle fibers, meat also includes connective tissue, intramuscular fat, and water. A lot of water, actually.

Fresh meat can contain up to about 75% water. Factors like how fatty the meat is and how the cut or animal has been handled between slaughter and serving — among other things — can affect overall moisture content. (source) The next largest component of meat is …. wait for it…… protein, with most fresh/frozen raw muscle-meat on average consisting of about 20% protein. The next most prevalent nutrient in meat is fat. Fat content is highly variable, but exists in pretty much all meat. (Fat has been unfairly demonized as the cause of many human afflictions in the last couple decades, but it’s actually a very important source of energy and contains crucial micronutrients.) Finally, meat contains vitamins and minerals, again, in various amounts depending on species, cut, and other factors.

The term “animal product” is also one you’ll see and/or use when discussing raw feeding, as it is a little more expansive than “meat”, and can mean anything from part of an animal, to the whole animal, to a substance created by an animal, i.e. milk or eggs. Animal products such as eggs can be a very useful item in a raw diet, and — as you’ll see in the charts and text of next post — very healthful.

So there you have it: You are now familiar with protein, and the difference between protein and meat. I implore you to choose the right terms when discussing food and feeding as a small gesture in promoting informed actions.

Next we’ll expand upon the quality of protein, and the importance of feeding a varied diet illustrated by the nutrient contents of different foods.

NEXT:  Spicing Up Life: The Importance Of Variety


More reading and additional sources:

http://www.merckvetmanual.com/management-and-nutrition/nutrition-small-animals/nutritional-requirements-and-related-diseases-of-small-animals

http://www.fao.org/ag/humannutrition/35978-02317b979a686a57aa4593304ffc17f06.pdf

http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/ai407e/AI407E03.htm

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