Twenty years ago, it was hard for you to find a single store that sold oat milk. But today it has never been easier to become a vegetarian, with manufacturers re-creating every dish you can imagine.
Entire supermarket aisles are dedicated to vegan products, from vegan cheese to meat-free burgers and non-dairy ice cream.
But while they defend the health benefits of cutting out animal products, experts are increasingly warning about the scarcity of nutrients in many plant-based foods.
To fulfill the impossible task of making light vegetables or credible alternatives to tofu, food makers often have to stuff them with unhealthy oils, starch, and other ingredients rich in saturated fat, sugar, and salt. In many cases, they are higher in calories and lower in vital nutrients than animal products.
MailOnline has now collected some of the worst offenders, according to the country’s leading experts:
Sausage and bacon
With more vegetarians now living in Britain and warm temperatures here to stay over the coming weeks, thousands of meatless sausages and burgers will be fried at barbecues across the country.
But while vegan sausage and bacon tend to be lower in fat, they can have more salt and sugar than meat options and often lack the essential vitamins found in the real thing.
Dr Duane Mellor, a dietician at Aston Medical College in Birmingham, said consumers think plant-based products are healthy, but said it’s important to check the label and see that “just because something is vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy”.
“Check for salt and remember, unlike meat, many plant-based meat alternatives do not contain the same levels of iron and vitamin B12 that are essential for health, which keeps blood cells and nerves working well,” added Dr. Mellor.
Vegetarian sausages and bacon are usually made with soy protein and wheat or pea protein.
However, unlike meat, these forms of protein are low in essential amino acids, which are essential for bone health, tissue repair and nutrient absorption.
Studies have also shown that the body absorbs about 2% less protein from plant-based alternatives than from real meat.
Products are piled with salt to make it taste like the original meat varieties, which get their juiciness and taste from animal fats.
Experts warn that plant-based types can also be high in trans fats — the type of fat that harms heart health the most by increasing bad cholesterol and lowering the good kind.
To give them the same appeal as the originals, plant-based alternatives also contain vegetable oils — such as coconut and palm — which can contain high levels of saturated fat.
These oils can also increase levels of bad cholesterol.
However, red and processed meat is also high in saturated fat and eating too much of it has been linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and strokes.
Those who shop for dinner may assume that ready meals made with vegetables are healthier than those filled with processed meat.
But it’s often saltier than similar types made with beef, chicken, or pork, which are already very high in salt, and can contain twice as much sugar as meat.
Too much sodium in the diet can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
Professor Gunter Konnell, a nutrition and food science expert at the University of Reading, told MailOnline that even regardless of the ingredients included, plant-based options do not have “the same nutritional content” unless they are fortified.
“I’m not sure all consumers will remember that if they ate plant-based meat alternatives, they might be consuming less iron or vitamin B12,” he said.
Iron is essential for making red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body. Too little iron — found in liver, red meat, and beans — can lead to anemia.
B12 is also necessary for the formation of red blood cells, the maintenance of a healthy nervous system, and the absorption of energy from food. It can only be found naturally in animal products, such as meat, fish, milk and cheese. Like iron, not eating enough can lead to anemia.
Sonia Pombo, Action on Salt campaign manager, told MailOnline that it’s important to know that a “vegan” or “vegan” label does not count as a “healthy” product because some ready meals contain “excessive amounts of hidden salt” and saturated fat.
“This is why we need to see a mandatory and clear introduction of nutritional information on packaging to make it easier for shoppers to make real, informed, healthy choices,” she said. “Too much salt raises blood pressure, which is a leading cause of strokes and heart disease.”
For many people, the hardest thing about going vegan is giving up cheese.
Manufacturers have tried hard to recreate the creamy taste and moist texture of cheese without dairy products.
But, like other vegan types, vegan cheese alternatives have “little nutritional value,” according to nutritionist Richard Hoffman.
Vegetarian cheese uses starch and vegetable oils – such as coconut oil and palm oil – as main ingredients to make it look like real.
The intestines break down starch into sugar, which leads to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Vegetable oils are “worse,” said Hoffman, from the University of Hertfordshire, in the conversation, as despite claims that coconut oil is healthy, it is “almost entirely” saturated fat.
Lauric acid, the main type of saturated fat in coconut oil, raises levels of “bad cholesterol” known as low-density lipoprotein (LDL). This can increase the risk of heart disease and strokes over time.
Just one small 30-gram portion of coconut oil-based vegan cheese can contain a third of a person’s daily saturated fat allowance. While real cheese is also high in saturated fat, it is not associated with a higher risk of heart disease.
Scientists believe this may be due to the saturated fats naturally present in cheese, which are not absorbed by the body as much as those found in oils and meats.
Those who eat vegan cheese may also miss the nutritional benefits of dairy cheese, which naturally contains protein, calcium, iodine, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. Manufacturers need to add these nutrients to vegan cheese so that consumers get the same benefits – but not all of them do, Mr. Hoffman said.
Yogurt is one of the best foods for slimmers looking to have low-calorie, dense meals – and dairy-free versions allow vegans to participate in the activity.
While conventional products are a rich source of protein and vitamins such as calcium, vitamin D and zinc, plant-based alternatives do not naturally contain many of these compounds and are often not fortified with them.
Plant-based yogurt, usually made with fermented soybeans or coconut milk, can contain as little as one-tenth the protein of regular yogurt, double the calories and be packed with saturated fat.
One bowl can contain up to 10g of saturated fat – half the recommended daily amount for a woman and a third for a man. Overeating can lead to high levels of bad cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
And like the dairy-based versions, some plant-based yogurts are made with artificial colors and sweeteners.
However, they tend to add probiotics, live bacteria, and yeast that are thought to boost bacteria in the gut, such as Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus, which improve digestion.
Dr. Carmen Bernas, a researcher and nutrition scientist at the University of Oxford, told MailOnline that while many dairy-free versions can be high in added sugars, some brands offer healthier alternatives.
Cakes and other sweet snacks
Eating a delicious dessert once in a while won’t do much harm.
But experts cautioned that despite the vegan brands, vegan cookies and chocolate don’t offer any additional nutritional benefit.
Vegan versions of Britain’s favorite sweets often contain the same calories, sugar and salt as the traditional versions. Dr. Hoffman told MailOnline that plant-based snacks are ‘always ultra-processed’.
While food processing includes regular cooking techniques such as roasting and boiling, ultra-processed foods are usually made with inexpensive ingredients such as vegetable oil, starch, and sugar and combined with artificial colors and flavors.
Dr Hoffman said this was a “concern” due to the strong links between fast food and “an increased risk of obesity and a whole host of chronic diseases including heart disease and cancer”.
This is thought to be due to its low nutritional value, along with the high levels of sugar, fats and trans fats.
“Another important point is that studies on the health benefits of a plant-based diet are coming from vegetarians who mostly eat whole foods – vegetables, fruits and legumes,” Dr. Hoffman said.
“There is now a new generation of vegetarians who are eating a lot of ultra-processed foods as part of their vegan diet and this may make their vegan diet much less healthy,” he added.
He said this was a “concern” due to the strong links between fast food and “an increased risk of obesity and a whole host of chronic diseases including heart disease and cancer.”
Vegan ice cream can contain up to a third of extra sugar to enhance its taste while also containing half the protein of scoops made from milk.
A standard vegan ice cream cone can contain up to 16 grams of sugar and 2 grams of protein, on average, compared to 11 grams of sugar and 1.6 grams of protein in the original version.
A bowl of original cookie dough ice cream contains up to 19 grams of protein, while the vegan option has just 9 grams.
Vegan versions can also be full of saturated fat, if they are made with coconut milk instead of cow’s milk.
Professor Gunther said foods eaten for indulgence, which are almost everything sweet, tend to fall into the category with no nutritional benefits.
He warned that they also increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and other diseases.
But it’s important to keep in mind that indulging in some sweets can have broader health benefits by improving mood, said Professor Gunther.
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