Veganuary recruited a record number of signups this year (around 500,000). It continues to trend but against popular belief, not all vegan diets are healthy. Let’s pull back that ‘health halo’ and have a poke around, with a particular focus on the vegan processed food market. This product research and evidence has been compiled by Abigail Green, a talented Nutrition undergraduate.
Firstly, what is a vegan diet?
Unlike vegetarians, who only exclude meat and fish, vegans abstain from all animal products. Pescatarians are similar to vegetarians but also include fish in their diet.
Are vegan diets healthier?
While the benefits to the environment, animal welfare and sustainability are undeniable; are current vegan products doing our bodies any good? And is a vegan diet healthier?
Research has suggested that a vegan diet is correlated with a greater life expectancy and a reduced risk of all-cause mortality (death rate from all causes). This is thought to be due to the vast amounts of fruit and vegetables more prominent in a vegan diet compared to other diets. Those on a vegan diet are also at a reduced risk of obesity and other related conditions, such as type two diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and certain cancers.
However, it is important to note that these links tell us about correlation, not causation. Evidence is mixed though; one study of over 48,000 people found that vegans had a higher risk of haemorrhagic and total stroke than meat-eaters.
Are vegan products healthy?
Veganism’s increased popularity has caused an eruption of new vegan products on our supermarket shelves. But are they conforming with the ‘health halo’ we seem to have placed on them?
I have investigated the protein, saturated fat, and salt content of various processed vegan products. On the whole, protein content is higher in meat products compared to vegan products. For example, the average meat sausage contained around 18g of protein per 100g, compared to 12g in the average vegan sausage. (range 14-17g depending on the brand. Linda McCartney at the lower end, Plant Chef at the top end).
How much protein do we need?
We need about 0.75g of protein for every 1kg of our bodyweight to meet basic requirements for protein turnover. Certain individuals benefit from more, for example the elderly and very active individuals. Minimum amounts we need to achieve are 45g for women and 55g for men per day. To get to grips with your protein needs and how to meet them this protein blog has all the info you need. From the products I have looked at, 15g/100g is a good aim for protein content when looking at nutrition labels of plant-based meat alternatives.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. There are 20 different amino acids, 9 of which are essential and must be obtained from the diet. Animal proteins give us all the essential amino acids we need. Plant proteins are not complete (although soy and quinoa come pretty close). Therefore, a range of different plant foods must be consumed to obtain all the essential amino acids we need. For example, rice and beans together will provide a complete source of protein, making veggie bean chilli with rice a great option!
Getting enough protein on a vegan diet is absolutely achievable, but may require slightly more meal planning.
What about the fat content of vegan products?
In terms of saturated fat, vegan processed food is the winner here, with most foods containing less than half the amount than in meat products. There is variation between brands and we need to be mindful of coconut oil.
Coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat; butter is around 65%. Trials are contradictory but a review of sixteen trials, concluded that coconut oil significantly increased LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) levels compared to vegetable oils. There is a place in the diet for saturated fat, but the balance ideally should swing towards vegetable oils for better health and lower cardiovascular risk.
What about salt in convenience vegan foods?
Salt is the real thing to watch out for when buying vegan processed foods. Salt content is generally higher in vegan products than their non-vegan counterparts; with some even containing twice as much!
But what does too much salt look like?
Using the traffic light system on nutrition labels is a great place to start when trying to keep track of your salt intake. The green category is the most desirable and will include anything with 0.3g of salt or less per 100g. Amber means the product is not high in salt, but is not low either and has between 3g and 1.5g per 100g. Anything with over 1.5g of salt per 100g will show up in red and should be avoided where possible. Much like the protein content, Linda McCartney and Plant Chef are good brands to choose for a lower salt percentage.
How can I make sure I am eating a healthy vegan diet?
My conclusion is that it has never been more important to look at nutrition labels and that some food brands are better than others when it comes to nutritional quality in the vegan food market. A vegan diet can be just as unhealthy as any other diet lacking in wholegrains, fruit, and veg. However, the traditional vegan diet full of nuts, grains, pulses, fruit, and veg, is certainly a healthy choice.
Take home message
- Don’t fall for health halos.
- Watch out for salt in vegan products.
- When in doubt, look at nutrition labels.
- Though animal products tend to have more protein, this doesn’t mean you can’t get what you need from plant sources, but when taking animal protein out of the diet, the nutrients associated with this can not be replaced by eating more pasta! 🙂
Here are some top brands and foods to help your next trip to the supermarket:
Kim, H., Caulfield, L.E., Garcia‐Larsen, V., Steffen, L.M., Coresh, J. and Rebholz, C.M. (2019). Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults. Journal of the American Heart Association, 8(16).
Orlich, M.J., Singh, P.N., Sabaté, J., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., Fan, J., Knutsen, S., Beeson, W.L. and Fraser, G.E. (2013). Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and Mortality in Adventist Health Study 2. JAMA Internal Medicine, [online] 173(13), p.1230. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4191896/.
Tong, T.Y.N., Appleby, P.N., Bradbury, K.E., Perez-Cornago, A., Travis, R.C., Clarke, R. and Key, T.J. (2019). Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow-up: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. BMJ, [online] p.l4897. Available at: https://www.bmj.com/content/366/bmj.l4897.
Khaw, K.-T., Sharp, S.J., Finikarides, L., Afzal, I., Lentjes, M., Luben, R. and Forouhi, N.G. (2018). Randomised trial of coconut oil, olive oil or butter on blood lipids and other cardiovascular risk factors in healthy men and women. BMJ Open, 8(3), p.e020167.
Neelakantan, N., Seah, J.Y.H. and van Dam, R.M. (2020). The Effect of Coconut Oil Consumption on Cardiovascular Risk Factors: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Clinical Trials. Circulation, 141(10).