By Diane Small
It’s official: plant based diets are a huge trend, with 12% of the British population shunning meat and 20% of those aged between 16-24 rejecting animal flesh in their diets. That’s a great thing: vegans and vegetarians live longer and have lower chances of developing chronic diseases like diabetes, gout and heart disease during their lifetimes, meaning their quality of life is better overall.
Vegetarians and vegans were once considered to be a bit odd, and it wasn’t easy for them to find a wide variety of food in the average grocery store. But today there are vegan hamburgers, hotdogs, salamis, turkeys, sausages, ham slices and even cheeses found in most supermarket aisles. Indeed, most vegans – including me – find it temptingly easy to slap one of these on the grill, add some salad to the plate and call it a dinner. But just how healthy are vegan burgers, ‘meats’ and cheese products?
While vegan diets have the potential to be one of the healthiest around, if you love these processed vegan ‘meats’, you’re probably not doing yourself any favours. In fact, you could be harming your health in ways you never imagined!
Veggie But Not Vegan – Or Healthy
First of all, we need to establish that some burgers on the supermarket shelves aren’t actually vegan at all – they’re veggie burgers. Which is fine if you’re a vegetarian, but if you have any dairy or egg allergies or avoid those products for ethical reasons, you really need to check the label.
For example, Linda McCartney has a wide range of vegetarian burgers, sausages and other ‘non-meat meats’. Given that she was such an avid animal lover, you would expect these to be vegan, but they’re not – they often contain eggs, cheese, whey and other dairy ingredients. But more worryingly, they’re full of artificial ingredients, such as rehydrated textured soya, artificial flavourings, yeast extract and methyl cellulose.
Another popular meat substitute is Quorn, which is based on a laboratory grown micoprotein; in other words, it’s a kind of fungus. That’s not a bad thing in itself – after all, who doesn’t love mushrooms? But several medical studies have proven that Quorn’s fungal ingredient is a common allergen. Still, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency allow its widespread sale. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit food-safety organization based in Washington, D.C., has heard from more than 2,000 consumers in Europe, the United States, and Australia/New Zealand who suffered reactions to Quorn. Not only that, but Quorn isn’t vegan friendly – it actually includes a lot of egg white.
Let’s start with the most basic ingredients in faux meats that actually are vegan: soy protein isolate. In its more natural form, like tofu or tempeh, soy provides a dose of protein with loads of nutrients. But today, over 90% of all soy produced is GMO – and that means it contains pesticides that cannot be washed off, as they are built right into the plant. Yes, really!
What’s worse, a highly neurotoxic petrochemical called hexane is used in the processing method of soy protein isolates and it concentrates when the soy beans are soaked in it to soften them. Hexate is a known toxin that can lead to nervous system damage when consumed in large quantities, so no wonder consumption of processed soy has been related to thyroid dysfunction, increased infertility rates, hormonal disruption and even increased rates of breast cancer.
Obviously, soy on its own hardly tastes like beef or chicken. So how do those manufacturers make these products so yummy? The answer is: artificial flavours. These can include neurotoxic MSG, carcinogenic nitrates and of course, sodium, and plenty of it. A single serving of vegan ‘chicken’ nuggets, for example, contains over 100mg more than actual McDonald’s chicken nuggets – not good!
Soy tends to be a bit slimy, so to get that meaty texture, loads of ingredients are added, the main ones being wheat protein or gluten, or even both. Obviously, this is not good news for the gluten intolerant, but in any case, rather than increasing your protein intake (which many vegans believe they are doing when eating things like vegan sausages or burgers), you may actually be eating more empty carbs than proteins, leading to dietary imbalances that ultimately cause problems like hair loss, brittle nails and duller skin.
Moving on to vegan cheeses, well – these are usually just junk foods based on processed oils. Yuk. One brand lists tapioca flour, canola or safflower oil, coconut oil, pea protein, salt, yeast, flavouring, vegetable glycerin, xanthan gum, annatto, titanium dioxide and citric acid as its ingredients. Is that really something you want to eat? If so, at least don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re eating something healthy just because it’s vegan.
Of course, the occasional vegan sausage isn’t going to kill you. But you need to think of most vegan meats and cheeses as being completely processed junk food. If you want to know which kinds of high protein meals you should be eating instead, click here for some great recipes!
Seitan’s Gluten Hell
This is the most common ‘meaty’ vegan food, and no wonder: it’s cheap and tastes like meat (without the added death and blood). It is indeed high in protein, but essentially, seitan is just junk food: it’s textured wheat protein that’s highly processed, and high in gluten. What makes it even worse is the fact that the deadly chemical pesticide glyphosate is present in most wheat products unless they’re organic. So in short, this is about as good for you as a bag of chips.
The Good Stuff
So, how healthy are vegan burgers, cheeses and ‘meats’? Well, that depends entirely on the kind you buy. If you love a nice veggie burger (and who doesn’t really?) there are some great organic brands you can buy, and some tasty ones you can make for yourself, too. Check these out, for example:
1. Taifun Tofu Sausages
These ‘sausages’ are really high in protein, and are certified organic, which means the soya used here isn’t GMO. Best of all? They taste amazing lightly grilled, and can be barbequed in summer, too!
Get yours here.
2. Dr Praeger’s Burgers
Made mainly from veggies and with no artificial ingredients, these patties may not be too high in protein (which comes from a bit of soy), but they are pretty healthy. They taste best baked in the oven with a spritz of coconut oil on the baking pan to keep them from sticking.
Get yours here.
3. Sunshine Burgers
These tasty patties are packed with omega-rich hemp seeds and flavour, but free of soya, gluten and of course any animal products. Always free of GMOs, Sunshine Burgers prides itself on the fact that their recipes contain only organic vegetable wholefoods.
Get yours here.
4. Dee’s Omega Burger
Made of brown rice, millet and organic veggies, these burgers also contain high amounts of omega oils thanks to the variety of seeds that make these patties nice and crunchy.
Get yours here.
5. Sweet Potato Black Bean Burger
Sometimes, the best vegan burger is the one you make yourself. It’s really not that difficult: a bit of beans, a bit of veg, a good hand mixer, and voila! Just look at this beauty!
Get the recipe from the Minimalist Baker here.