Q&A with Kathy Freston

The best-selling author shares the surprising takeaways from her latest book.

Plant-based diets are becoming increasingly popular thanks to the shift in awareness around human health and concern for animal welfare and the environment, says L.A.-based author Kathy Freston. In her new book, Clean Protein, she teamed up with co-author Bruce Friedrich (co-founder and executive director of The Good Food Institute) to examine how much protein people actually need and whether there’s an ideal source. Here, Freston asserts her opinion on carnivorous diets and test tube meat.

What qualifies protein as clean?

“Let’s consider the whole protein package. How much cholesterol or saturated fat is embedded in your protein of choice? Does it cause inflammation in the body? Are potential pathogens like E. coli or salmonella commonly found? Were antibiotics or hormones used in the production process? Clean protein is free of all of these contaminants and health concerns. In addition to the health issues, there is also the bigger picture to consider. Did the making of that protein do serious damage to our land or water? Did its production pollute the air we breathe? Just because a food is high in protein doesn’t mean it’s clean either for the body or for a sustainable future. We considered all of these factors to determine which proteins are cleanest.”

What are three surprising things you learned while writing the book?

“We learned a lot, some of it empowering, some of it alarming. First, the very agencies that are supposed to protect our health are actually doing a lot to thwart these efforts. It’s important that individuals make informed choices, rather than simply following what some government agencies and marketing firms recommend. Second, the single most powerful superfood you can add into your diet is the humble bean. They’re high in protein, fiber, iron, and antioxidants and don’t have the saturated fat and cholesterol found in animal proteins. Third, as great as nuts are, seeds have even more protein and more minerals, with less saturated fat.”

There are healthy athletes who eat chicken and fish or follow meat-centric diets like Paleo. What’s your opinion on that?

“When we’re young, we can consume many different foods and stay healthy, especially if we’re physically active. But the harms of saturated and trans fats found in red meat add up over time. What's more, a 2014 issue of Consumer Reports published that 97 percent of chicken breasts found in retail stores were contaminated with bacteria that could make people sick. And as the oceans are increasingly populated with pesticides that means fish cannot be considered clean either. To lower our pollutant exposure, we should try to eat as low on the food chain as possible. More and more athletes are choosing a plant-powered diet and finding that their performance improves. And not just endurance athletes. A contingent of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans have adopted a plant-based diet. Clearly, we can thrive without eating animal meat.”

Do you see meat grown from animal cells as healthier than grass-fed, free-range options?

“Clean meat—real animal flesh grown from cells in a kind of brewery—is on the horizon. Flesh without slaughter may seem weird at first, but when you think about it, there’s no bacterial contamination, no need for antibiotics or growth hormones, and no massive resources used to feed and sustain animals. So yes, it appears it’s much healthier. But until it’s available, we recommend clean beans, nuts, seeds, and plant-based meats like the Beyond Meat and Tofurky deli slices.”

For people who want to eat less animal protein, what’s the best way to start?

“Go at it as an adventure and view it as adding new things to your diet rather than giving something up. Explore the grocery store for new types of beans, nuts, and seeds and try dining out at an Ethiopian or Indian restaurant, which have great bean-based dishes and lots of veggies.”

How do you see plant-based diets evolving in the future?

“I think we’ll see an expansion of companies that no longer want to make products for vegetarians, but want to directly compete with animal meat. So meat-free products like Beyond Meat's burger will taste just as great as the real thing and we’ll see more of them. Restaurants will also get on board and offer more plant-based options and serve traditional foods with upgraded, cleaner proteins.”