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Are Vegan Substitute Products Always Healthy?

What does it mean to be vegan/practice veganism?


People who practice the vegan diet do not eat “meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products,” but there is a little more to veganism than the foods that they eat [3]. Vegans do not use animal-derived products, which are products that are either made from animals or made from products produced by animals. Honey is a common animal-derived product, but vegans do not eat honey because it is made through the efforts of bees. Any item made from the protein, stock, or fat of an animal is not used. There are also other products such as leathers, certain latex, soaps, and silks that vegans will not use. Veganism can be practiced for different reasons as well. Some will practice veganism in order to protest against animal cruelty, and others pursue this diet in order to gain a healthier lifestyle through eating less fat and sugars found in meat. For whichever reason, there are plenty of products made in order to support people who do not eat meat.





What are vegan substitute products?

In the past few years, more and more animal products are being replicated with vegan and vegetarian options. These products are made from plants, and are meant to replace the protein intake that you would get from meat and dairy. These products can replace meat products, dairy products, and even seafood in the future. More substitutes are trying to mimic “the texture, flavor, and/or nutrient profiles of farmed meat” [5]. Meat is replaced with plants, seafood alternatives are currently being developed, and dairy products are usually also plant-based.

Some common meat substitutes are tofu and soy protein products, but you can also find “products resembling burger patties, mince, sausages, and chicken” [1]. Dairy substitutes are made from plants, usually “almond, cashew, coconut, hazelnut, peanut, sesame, soy, tiger nut, oat, rice, hemp, and walnut” [2], with the most common being almond, soy, and oat. Dairy substitutes are becoming more common, and now they are “irreplaceable in the vegan food industry because plant-based milk substitutes are used as an essential ingredient in many vegan food products” [2].


What are some of the pros of vegan / plant-based diets?

Plant-based diets are shown to have many health benefits. For one, veganism is effective for people trying to lose weight. The diet still provides nutrition, and still causes “more calories to be burned after meals” because food is not being stored as fats [6]. There is also an advantage to sticking with plants, as it can decrease risk of diabetes. Plant-based foods are possibly “improving insulin sensitivity and decreasing insulin resistance” [6]. Heart disease is also shown to be less prominent in vegans, as well as high blood pressure. Overall, it is shown that “whole-food sources of plant protein, such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole soy, provide fiber and prebiotics to help your gut stay healthy” [4]. All of these benefits can lead to a reduced risk of mortality, where the risks of certain diseases are generally lower than being on a meat-based diet. However, some products are changing, and new ingredients are being added that may not support these benefits.


Do you get the same necessary nutrients from these products?

These substitutes are made to give most of the proteins and other nutrients provided by an animal, seafood, or dairy product, but it doesn’t always reach the recommended amount. Most substitutes for meat may not have the exact amount of protein that can be gained from meat. It’s important to eat “about 20 grams of protein per meal,” so these substitutes usually need to be paired with something else that will help you to reach the recommended daily amount [4].


For milk substitutes made from plants, there are usually positive effects because of the boost of “rich antioxidant activity and fatty acid which reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, atherosclerosis, and diabetes” [2]. However, there is also a lack of protein and calcium within plant-based milk. Soy milk is the best in terms of gaining protein, but it is also in “less in demand due to its beany flavor and the presence of some anti-nutrients” [2]. Tooth enamel has been shown to worsen with the lack of calcium in plant-based milk, raising the risk of oral health declining.


This also leads into another component that milk-substitutes lack, which are vitamins and minerals. This can include iron, zinc, and magnesium. Other vitamins aid the ability to absorb calcium, which is why it is difficult to get high levels of calcium from plant-based milk and dairy.



What products are added to these substitutes?

Some meat substitutes contain extra ingredients that aren’t necessarily healthy for the body. On occasion, the products that are added to meat substitutes contain products that promote freshness and convenience. Most products made to replace meat are made from peas or beans, which are great sources of protein, but some are also made from processed soy or gluten made from wheat. The ingredients of newer meat substitutes can be complicated and hard to pronounce, which indicates that they are not simple. Some examples are “methylcellulose (a thickener) and soy leghemoglobin (a genetically engineered protein),” which are not as healthy [4]. Plant-based milks also have a higher content of sugar, which is used to sweeten the milk and make it more tasty.


Are these products always healthy?

There are a few health concerns that come with plant-based diets, with some mentioned earlier in this article. A well-balanced plant diet can eliminate some health concerns, which means mixing the right foods in order to get the correct amount of nutrients and vitamins you need for the day. Protein deficiency is a common concern for those looking to enter a vegan diet. If paired with other plant-based foods that are rich in protein, this is not an issue. Iron is another common concern, as it is not as present in plant-based foods. Some foods that are rich in iron include “kidney beans, black beans, soybeans, spinach, raisins, cashews, oatmeal, cabbage, and tomato juice” [6]. These can be paired with each other, or foods with a smaller iron content in order to reach the daily recommended amount.


A more concerning deficiency that could be brought up in a plant-based diet is with vitamin B12, which is “needed for blood formation and cell division” [6]. Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria, which cannot be found in plants or animals. Supplements may be taken in order to regulate vitamin B12 levels within the body. As mentioned before, it is also common to have a deficiency in calcium, which is found in cow’s milk and helps build and maintain strong bones. Adequate intake can be achieved with a vegan diet, but it can be more difficult to absorb calcium from plants due to the lack of certain vitamins and nutrients. Most plant-based substitutes also have at least “one major food allergen among their ingredients, with wheat and soy being the most common” [5]. It’s important to check ingredients just in case you have any allergies.


In the end, being on a plant-based diet takes a certain level of discipline. A large amount of research should be put into what nutrients need to be substituted, and how they can be substituted within a plant-based diet. Otherwise, going on a plant-based diet does have its upsides, which can very well outweigh the downsides.







Author: Kayjah Taylor

Editor: Sophia Galvez

Health scientist: Aseelah Saiyed

@werise4wellness


References


1. Curtain, F., & Grafenauer, S. (2019). Plant-Based Meat Substitutes in the Flexitarian Age: An Audit of Products on Supermarket Shelves. Nutrients, 11(11), 2603. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/nu11112603


2. Elif Feyza Aydar, Sena Tutuncu, Beraat Ozcelik, Plant-based milk substitutes: Bioactive compounds, conventional and novel processes, bioavailability studies, and health effects, Journal of Functional Foods, Volume 70, 2020, 103975, ISSN 1756-4646, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jff.2020.103975


3. NorthShore University HealthSystem. (2021). Vegan, vegetarian, Pescatarian, Flexitarian, and macrobiotic diets – What's the difference? NorthShore. Retrieved September 24, 2021, from https://www.northshore.org/healthy-you/vegan-flexitarian-vegetarian-pescatarian-and-macrobiotic-diets--whats-the-difference/#:~:text=However%2C%20a%20pescatarian%20is%20not,grains%2C%20fruits%20and%20dairy%20products


4. Pogored. (2020, October 9). Are meat substitutes healthy? Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved November 1, 2021, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/are-meat-substitutes-healthy/


5. Santo, R. E., Kim, B. F., Goldman, S. E., Dutkiewicz, J., Biehl, E. M., Bloem, M. W., Neff, R. A., & Nachman, K. E. (2020). Considering plant-based meat substitutes and cell-based meats: A public health and Food Systems Perspective. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2020.00134


6. Tuso, P. J., Ismail, M. H., Ha, B. P., & Bartolotto, C. (2013). Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets. The Permanente journal, 17(2), 61–66. https://doi.org/10.7812/TPP/12-085


7. Weinrich R. Opportunities for the Adoption of Health-Based Sustainable Dietary Patterns: A Review on Consumer Research of Meat Substitutes. Sustainability. 2019; 11(15):4028. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11154028



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