Most helpful critical review
35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
even with 'protein complementarity' refuted, a source for simple, affordable ethnic recipes based on legumes & grains
on November 17, 2010
Like so many applied chemistry students in the 1970s, Diet for a Small Planet was among the books that made chemistry 'alive'. It brought our classroom abstractions to the kitchen table. Lappe's writing is persuasive and readable and her recipes are simple and affordable enough for a student's skill & budget.
Much of the controversy of this book arose regarding its 2 main points.
1) When proteins are assimilated or metabolized as a 'complete protein' containing all amino acids in proper proportions, there is a high 'protein utilization' by enzymes / human digestive system. (see note, this was researched and refuted in 1981)
2) The 'food chain' pyramid of feed grains to animal meat has about a 10% net protein efficiency. That is, you get 10 times more protein eating corn & beans vs. eating beef or red meat protein.
Lappe's contention that we could feed many of the world's malnourished if we in rich nations were vegetarians or used meats as seasoning rather than entrees may be a scientific & nutritional ideal. The bad news is that it is as difficult to change traditional patterns of food consumption as it is to change religion or culture. The good news is 'protein complementarity or not', combos of legumes and grains have for centuries been the traditional pattern of food comsumption by the poor in most of Latin America & Asia. whether eaten as a meal or not, the 'survival value' of these protein-rich combos made them the 'fittest' for the environment so they became traditions.
For similar food chem books, try Harold McGee or especially Shirley Corriher's classic 'Cookwise'.
Note from Wikipedia:
'In fact, the original source of the theory, Frances Moore Lappé, changed her position on protein combining. In the 1981 edition of Diet for a Small Planet, she wrote:
"In 1971 I stressed protein complementarity because I assumed that the only way to get enough protein ... was to create a protein as usable by the body as animal protein. In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth. I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought.
"With three important exceptions, there is little danger of protein deficiency in a plant food diet. The exceptions are diets very heavily dependent on
 some tubers, such as sweet potatoes or cassava,
 junk food (refined flours, sugars, and fat).
Fortunately, relatively few people in the world try to survive on diets in which these foods are virtually the sole source of calories.
In all other diets, if people are getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein."
On the other hand, the principle of protein combining seems to have been unknowingly recognized by most traditional agricultural societies in the form of dishes that combine legumes with grains. Examples include the traditional Indian combination of dal and rice, the Middle Eastern pairing of pita bread with hummus, ful medames, or falafel, the West African combination of rice and beans (since spread in a circum-Caribbean distribution to the Caribbean islands, Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America, and to the Southern United States where it is known as Hoppin' John), and the Mexican tradition of combining beans with tortillas and other dishes made of maize.'