The foodservice industrial complex in this country has made it incredibly cheap to consume two of the three sources of energy—fat and carbohydrates. Of course, those also happen to be the two that decades of conflicting dietary fads have been determined to limit.
Outside those suffering kidney or liver disease, however, protein is rarely the target of dietary restriction. It also needn’t require consumption in large, expensive slabs.
Deriving most commonly from meat, protein typically requires tons of feed, megaliters of water, and hundreds upon thousands of road miles to transport, contributing to its cost. In fact, according to PETA, it takes over 11 times as much fossil fuel to yield one calorie of animal protein as it does to yield a calorie of plant protein.
To give you an idea of what a typical protein costs, organic chicken breast registers at about 8¢ per gram of protein and is likely only rising, with drought, disease, and supply shortages driving up the per-pound cost of livestock nationwide.
But those trying to maximize protein on a budget have options. Behold these nutritional cheat codes for working more protein into your diet on the cheap.
The collard greens of whole grains, rye seeds can be tough to cook with, but are loaded with additional nutrients, including magnesium, iron, and fiber. Historically regarded as “the poverty grain” for their durability on poorer soils, rye berries don’t taste like rye bread, the flavor of which actually comes from caraway seeds. They’re an incomplete protein, though, so boil them up the way you would rice alongside the next entry on our list…
Where to buy them: Two dollars gets you a pound of them at Whole Foods, or you can order five pounds at Breadtopia.com for about four bucks.
Value: 3.5¢/gram of protein
Exceeded in protein among all legumes by only soybeans and hemp, lentils are also high in folate, fiber, and, well, flatulence. Red lentils boast the shortest cooking time of the bean’s six varieties but, like rye berries, lentils are an incomplete protein requiring the consumption of complementary foods (see above) within 24 hours for proper synthesis. You’ll get a lot of carbs in the process, but fewer than in a helping of rice and beans, with almost three times the protein.
Where to buy them: A one-pound bag of house-brand lentils at Wal-Mart costs just over a dollar.
Value: 0.8¢/gram of protein
As high in protein as any vegetable (8 grams per cup), green peas are also rich in vitamins B1, B6, and K, phosphorus, and dietary fiber. Available in three forms—fresh, dry, and frozen—they can be cooked, tossed into salads, or popped like nuts.
Where to buy them: A two-pound bag of generic frozen peas can be purchased from just about any grocery store in the known universe for less than $2.50.
Value: 5.4¢/gram of protein
Keep in mind that rye berries, lentils, and peas are primarily carbs. So when you eat them, that’s what you’re getting the most of, but they’re “good,” fiber-dense carbs, making these foods nutritional multitaskers.
It’s no surprise to see eggs on a list of protein sources, but it may surprise some to see them among the cheapest. One carton yields 72 total grams of protein, though the per-egg amount drops to 3.6 grams when separated, something the saturated-fat-conscious should consider. Hormone- and antibiotic-free organic eggs typically run about a third more, but are still a (healthier) protein bargain.
Where to buy them: One carton of conventional eggs averages $2.12 according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and is among the most ubiquitous foods in America.
Value: Approx. 2.9¢/gram of protein (conventional), 4.2¢/gram of protein (organic)
Low-moisture hard cheeses are customarily high in protein, and Parmesan is the highest. Nearly 40% of its total composition is protein, though almost another 20% is saturated fat. Still, you can shake several servings over salad or pasta to boost the protein content of a meal.
Where to buy it: A five-ounce tub of Grana Padano Parmesan at Trader Joe’s runs between $3 and $4.
Value: 5.8¢/gram of protein
Meat (along with substitutes like tofu, tempeh, and seitan) is ordinarily among the most expensive sources of protein, but canned tuna is the exception. Lower in mercury than solid tuna, light (or skipjack) tuna is still generally not recommended more than once a week.
Where to buy it: Whole Foods carries a soy-, salt- and pyrophosphate-free version within its 365 line for around $1.50.
Value: 5.4¢/gram of protein
Fage 2% Plain Greek Yogurt
Greek (or strained) yogurt is notoriously high in protein—and price. But when it comes to protein content Fage’s low-fat offering is high even for Greek yogurt, making it a relative bargain. It can obviously be enjoyed on its own and is also used as a substitute for mayonnaise, sour cream, or cream-based sauces.
Where to buy them: Major grocery stores often offer the 35.3-ounce size on sale for around $6. When they do, stock up!
Value: 6¢/gram of protein
1% Cottage Cheese
A punch line leveled at dieters for many years, cottage cheese isn’t just a protein powerhouse, it also provides roughly 15% of the daily recommended intake of calcium, and half the DRIs of vitamin B12 and phosphorus. Just make sure to steer clear of additives like carbon dioxide, various gums (guar, xanthan, locust bean, etc.), and carrageenan.
Where to buy it: A 16-ounce tub can be purchased for around $2 at most grocery stores.
Value: 3.6¢/gram of protein