Absorbent hydrogels are formed by reacting a protein meal base, a radical initiator and a polymerizable monomer. Optionally, a cross-linking agent and/or a radical accelerant, such as tetramethylethylenediamine (TMEDA) or sodium bisulfite (NaHSO.sub.3), is also added to the mixture. Preferably, the radical initiator is ammonium persulfate (APS) or potassium persulfate (KPS), and the cross-linking agent is preferably trifunctional trimethylolpropane trimethacrylate (TMPTMA) or methylene bis acrylamide (MBA). The polymerizable monomer is preferably acrylic acid, or a combination of acrylic acid and acrylamide. The as-formed hydrogel is washed in order to extract non-reactant components from the gel and then dried. The resultant absorbent and superabsorbent hydrogels have high water uptake ratios, and can be utilized for a variety of applications.