Ultra-Processed Vegan Foods: How do they stack up against the regular animal-based versions?

Last week, The George Institute in Australia released a report highlighting just how much sodium is found in seemingly healthy vegan food products that have recently hit the shelves in Australian supermarkets. I applauded this report and the message it was trying to convey (just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy!). However, while a positive step in the right direction, the report stopped short of comparing these vegan foods to their ‘regular’ animal-based counterparts. It got me thinking: we all know that the ultra-processed vegan food products that have recently flooded the market are not healthy – but how much better or worse are these products to their regular animal-based versions?

I decided to find out. I gathered the nutritional information of a few of the most popular vegan ultra-processed food items and compared them to their average or most popular animal-based equivalent available here in Australia. This comparison is OBVIOUSLY not comprehensive – I have only selected a few popular products to compare rather than create averages of all of the products available in Australia.

Still, even in this limited comparison, my search highlighted that:

  • Vegan ultra-processed food items contain, on average, slightly less but overall quite similar amounts of saturated fat, calories, protein & sodium compared to their regular animal-based versions. After all, to replicate the fatty and salty taste of bacon, a beefy burger or a piece of chicken, something’s got to give.
  • The ingredient list of these vegan food items tends to be longer (i.e. more processed) than the animal-based version, but not much so. Most animal-based foods are subjected to similar amounts of processing to achieve the desired product.

→ However, there are a few points to note:

  1. Anybody who has even cooked meat knows just salt is used as a seasoning. Therefore, the end product (cooked) is likely to have a significantly different nutritional profile than that listed below. Keep in mind that 1 tsp of salt = 400mg Sodium.
  2. The nutritional profile of both the vegan and non-vegan option vary quite dramatically based on the product selected. Some plant-based options fare better than others (for example, the Dairy-Free Down Under range of vegan cheese has way less saturated fat than other versions and contains a relatively short & healthy list of ingredients), but the same is true for meat-based products (the high-quality, grass-fed meat option is generally a whole lot more nutritious compared to the popular/common version). Bottom line? It’s essential to READ LABELS!
  3. I could not find reliable information about the amount of Cholesterol in these products – but that does not mean 1) Cholesterol does not matter and 2) that the amount of Cholesterol in these foods is negligible. It’s important to note that Cholesterol is ONLY present in aminal-based foods (same way fibre is only found in plants) and that it is likely to be abundant in the majority of animal foods listed below.
  4. Plant proteins often come under fire for not being ‘complete proteins’. Yes, the amino acid profile of animal and plant protein is different, but what people often fail to recognize is that for anyone following a minimally balanced diet which includes different sources of plant proteins, this is no problem at all. All plants contain different ratios of amino acids, so a balanced diet will ensure that all amino acids are sourced.
  5. Finally, this comparison does not capture the full picture: cholesterol, fibre, hormones and antibiotics are not made explicit in nutritional labels hence I have not added them to this list – but these factors DO matter and if present, they would undoubtedly tip the scale towards plant-based foods.

The Comparisons: Imitation Vegan vs Animal-Based

1. Burgers

The world collectively lost it when both the Beyond and Impossible plant-based burgers recently hit the shelves. Announced as more sustainable plant-based options that would not compromise on taste, these vegan imitation meats have no doubt propelled the popularity of mock meats. However, these products have also been criticised as unhealthy options due both to their lengthy ingredient list and fat content. It’s important to point out that these mock meats do not aim to be healthy, but rather seek to offer everyone, vegan or not, the option to a hearty, beefy burger minus the cruelty and emissions. In that light, it makes sense that their nutritional profile is quite similar to the regular beef option.

Verdict: While nutrition-wise these products may be similar, given the disastrous effects of both red meat consumption on health and the environment, the Beyond Burger wins.

→ Try instead…

Plenty of plant-based whole food veggie burgers to choose from! Try this black bean burger, my lighter Mushroom Tempeh burger or this grill-friendly veggie burger.

2. Bacon

Packed with saturated fat and sodium (not to mention its classification by the WHO as a carcinogen to humans), bacon is well-known to be best avoided. As you can see below, this vegan option is a whole lot better nutrition-wise. With a fraction of the saturated fat, more protein and less sodium, this option is objectively better. Its ingredient list, however, highlights just how much processing has gone into the making of this product.

Verdict: Veggie Delights wins because of its nutritional profile and the fact it’s not a carcinogen, but both these products should be kept to an absolute minimum. Vegan or not, bacon is high on the list of foods to avoid.

→ Try instead…

If you’ve never had tempeh ‘bacon’, you’re in for a treat. Try this recipe, or give this one a go.

3. Sausages

Nobody looks to sausages for health purposes – we all know that. For this comparison, I decided to choose the best organic and grass-fed beef sausage I could find online to highlight that EVEN in a best-case scenario, meat sausages are packed with saturated fat and sodium. The Tofurky version is, as you can see below, packed with a variety of ingredients that are mostly fine, although some of these (like carrageenan and dextrose), are not definitely not health-promoting.

Verdict: These plant-based sausages have double the protein and half a fraction of the saturated fat and sodium, making them the clear winner. Are they healthy? No – but it obviously depends what you’re comparing that to. Tofurky sausage over red processed meat – sure! Tofurky sausage over a whole food plant-based meal, not so much.

→ Try instead…

This BBQ Bean Sausage recipe developed by Gaz Oakley, a past guest on the Plant Proof Podcast is to die for.

4. Chicken ‘Schnitzel’

Out of all the comparisons on this list, this is probably the closest call. Both have an equally long list of ingredients while offering similar amounts of protein, saturated fat and sodium. Just a note on ‘RSPCA Approved’ Chicken: this certification still allows for chickens to be kept indoors in overcrowded conditions for their whole life and for them to be bred for unnaturally fast growth. Read more about this here.

Verdict: while nutritionally similar, the UNREAL CO plant-based version wins for being a lower-calorie no cruelty option.

→ Try instead…

These easy vegan tofu nuggets are a popular choice, or if you’re after something a tad more elaborate, give this version a go.

5. Ice Cream

First off, it’s important to point out that the dairy-free version has 11g less product while offering similar amounts of sugar, saturated fat, and calories. So really, gram-per-gram, the dairy-free version is objectively worse. Regardless, it’s clear that the creators at Magnum have realised this, hence the smaller serving size.

Verdict: both products are jam-packed with sugar and saturated fat, making them a poor nutritional choice. These definitely belong to the ‘once in a while’ category – but you already knew that. In short, if you were reaching for the vegan version thinking it was a healthier choice, think again. If you were reaching to it for its reduced impact on the environment and cruelty-free status, this remains the best choice.

→ Try instead…

Make some delicious nice cream and top with homemade granola, peanut butter or nuts. Head here for some great nice cream recipes.

6. Cheese

Cheese is hands down the food I most commonly hear omnivores say they ‘could not live without’. To compensate for that, food manufacturers have been coming out with vegan options that replicate the taste, shape and consistency of dairy cheese. Results have been mixed, in my opinion. Regardless, the point is that in an attempt to replicate the salty and fatty taste of regular dairy cheese, vegan imitations have often relied on copious amounts of coconut oil, making these options not particularly favourable in the nutrition department.

Verdict: Animal ethics and environment aside (which, don’t get me wrong, matter a whole lot), the dairy cheese has more calories and slightly more saturated fat. However, the vegan option has more sodium while offering zero protein. I’d call this one a tie.

→ Try instead…

I have not made this personally, but this recipe for a vegan cheddar cheese looks promising.

So what does this comparison tell us?

This comparison is in NO WAY an invitation to consume animal-based foods instead of their vegan counterparts. Rather, this post seeks merely to highlight that vegan or not, ultra-processed food is, surprise surprise, junk food. It can be tempting to be lured in by the many exciting new vegan products hitting the shelves (I know I have been guilty of this) but vegan or not, you should be trying to limit this food to as little as possible. Once in a while, these foods will obviously not kill you – but minimising their intake to special occasions is a sensible idea.

It’s important to note that the many benefits associated with a plant-based diet (that I’ve spoken about at length elsewhere) apply to people consuming VARIED, WHOLE FOOD PLANTS rich in whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables – not highly processed foods created in a lab that have been modified and engineered to taste good. These foods may end up being as unhealthy as the animal-based food products they’re imitating and will do your body no favours.

Bottom line?

Stick to plants in their most natural, unrefined forms. Choose WHOLE FOODS and minimise your consumption of ultra-processed food products.

The Proof is in the Plants

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