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:
→ However, there are a few points to note:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Make some delicious nice cream and top with homemade granola, peanut butter or nuts. Head here for some great nice cream recipes.
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.
I have not made this personally, but this recipe for a vegan cheddar cheese looks promising.
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.
Stick to plants in their most natural, unrefined forms. Choose WHOLE FOODS and minimise your consumption of ultra-processed food products.
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