Vegans have traditionally been a healthy bunch, feasting on beans, pulses, lentils and other whole foods to fuel themselves.
But thanks to the food industry responding to the plant-based trend, we’re seeing the rise of ultra-processed vegans.
Yet diets high in red meat and processed meat (such as bacon and ham) also increase the risk of diseases such as colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
So which is healthier – eating meat and meat products such as pies, bacon, ham and sausages or replacing them with their vegan alternatives made from a range of plant proteins and soy?
Here, Rob Hobson, registered dietitian, consultant for supplement brand Healthspan, and author of Unprocess Your Life: Break Free From Ultra-Processed Foods for Good, examines…
100% BEEF BURGER VERSUS VEGETABLE BURGER (made with pea and rice protein)
Revealed: Vegans eat MORE ultra-processed food than meat eaters
Vegans eat more ultra-processed foods than meat eaters, according to a recent study by the Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
The researchers analyzed the daily food intake of 19,812 meat eaters, 646 vegetarians, 500 vegetarians and 254 vegans.
They found that those who ate the least animal-based foods consumed more UPF (vegan diets had 39.5% UPF; 37% for vegetarians and 33% for meat eaters).
HOBSON’S JUDGMENT: The veggie burger is a bit more energetic, but both offer a good source of protein.
The vegan burger uses a combination of plant-based proteins that provide all the essential amino acids in the same way as beef.
The beef version contains fewer ingredients and a preservative to help extend the product’s shelf life, while the vegan version requires stabilizers and emulsifiers to provide the right texture and mouthfeel (as well as extend shelf life). .
A veggie burger is unlikely to deliver the significant amounts of iron and B12 found in a beef burger.
Research published in the BMJ shows that a higher intake of emulsifiers, including methyl cellulose (E461), is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease, although more research is needed to cause and effect is proven.
The plant-based option is no healthier nutritionally than a beef burger and is more ultra-processed.
The winner: BEEF BURGER
CHICKEN NUGGETS vs VEGETABLE NUGGETS (made with soy protein)
HOBSON’S JUDGMENT: The chicken nuggets used in this analysis are a very inexpensive brand that is much more ultra-processed than some of the more expensive brands that contain fewer ingredients and additives.
Regardless of price, vegan brands tend to contain more ingredients and additives.
Nutritionally, the vegan options are only slightly higher in calories, but the nutritional profile is quite similar (although they will lack some of the nutritional density of the chicken), given that many of the ingredients used in the vegan bites have a lot little nutritional value.
The winner: CHICKEN PEPPERS
HAM vs MEATLESS HAM (made with soy and pea protein)
HOBSON’S JUDGMENT: Nutritionally, these two products are not very different, except that the meat version contains more salt.
Like many vegan UPF foods, the ingredient list is much longer than the meat version and contains more additives needed to create the right texture.
Carrageenan gum is widely used in ultra-processed foods to help thicken and stabilize the product. Questions have been raised about the pro-inflammatory effect of this dietary supplement and the impact it has on the gut microbiome, although more research is needed.
The World Cancer Research Fund advises limiting consumption of processed meat, as it is linked to a higher risk of colorectal cancer through the nitrites used to preserve the meat.
A large systematic review of prospective studies found that consumption of processed meat was associated with a 21% increased risk of colon cancer and a 22% increased risk of rectal cancer.
I think there are pros and cons to both products, but personally I would steer clear of processed meat in this case.
Winner: VEGAN HAM
CHICKEN MUSHROOM CHICKEN vs. CHICKEN MUSHROOM CHICKEN VEGAN CHICKEN MUSHROOM (made with soy protein)
HOBSON’S JUDGMENT: There is little difference between these two versions of chicken and mushroom pie.
Nutritionally, they are similar and bear the hallmarks of ultra-processed food, high in saturated fat, salt and sugar, and with a very long ingredient list that contains additives you wouldn’t find in your own kitchen.
Flavor enhancers like monosodium glutamate create an intense flavor or spiciness, in this case, that can make food super tasty.
This is even more true when combined with other ingredients such as hydrogenated oils and soy lecithin, which are used to create texture and mouthfeel, as they have a creamy texture and likely contribute to the flakiness of the dough in these pies.
UPF’s super taste is why it’s hard to stop eating and why UPFs are associated with overconsumption and obesity. Neither is better than the other in this case.
The winner: NEITHER – BOTH ARE BAD
CHICKEN TENDER VERSUS VEGAN CHICKEN TENDER (made with soy protein)
HOBSON’S JUDGMENT: The nutritional profile of these two versions of the chicken tenders is relatively similar, although the vegan version contains more ingredients.
Both contain a stabilizer or thickener that is used to improve the texture and stability of the food to preserve the product’s shelf life.
Research suggests that consuming large amounts of cellulose in particular may be associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, but this is not conclusive and more research is needed.
However, the vegan version has a much longer list of ingredients, so I would be more inclined to choose the chicken version here.
The winner: CHICKEN TENDERS
Give your vegan diet some va-va voom!
Rob Hobson on how to ensure you get all the nutrients you need on a plant-based diet…
Despite all the health benefits of going vegan or plant-based, both plans can leave you low in key nutrients.
The key to eating well as a vegan is careful planning – group cooking will ensure a supply of home-cooked meals and prevent last-minute UPF purchases.
Make sure your cupboards are stocked with plenty of beans, pulses, lentils, Quorn, tinned tomatoes, herbs and spices.
Even the most diligent vegan needs to plan carefully to make sure they don’t leave nutrient gaps in their diet.
Tofu, for example, is a good source of omega-3s. However, this form of omega-3 – or alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – is more difficult for the body to process.
Eating only plants can also mean you’re not getting enough protein.
Some foods are marketed as meat alternatives, such as jackfruit burgers. Although they are essentially a protein substitute, some do not contain protein.
Meanwhile, vitamin B12, which keeps blood, nerve cells and DNA healthy, doesn’t exist in plant-based foods, so it must be taken as a supplement, such as Healthspan’s Elite Vitamin B12.
Also, the iron found in plant foods (non-heme iron) is not as easily absorbed by the body.
Calcium is another nutrient that can be difficult to obtain from a vegan diet if it is not well designed.