It seems if you want to be trendy then being vegan is the way to go. It’s often used interchangeably with being healthier or being more environmentally friendly but being a true vegan is about much more. We explore what being vegan is really about and if claims of it being healthier or being more environmentally friendly are true.
Is being vegan healthier?
Over the years I have experimented with various types of diets. In fact at one point I thought I may have been lactose intolerant so I cut out dairy from my diet for a long period of time but it wasn’t helping so I had no choice but to also cut out wheat in case I was gluten intolerant.
At the time I was also a vegetarian so my food options became extremely limited to eating just salads. I have to admit, I got bored pretty quickly and at the time vegan food wasn’t really popular so I didn’t have the luxury of eating lookalike gluten free meat or interesting vegan recipes. I did however feel great especially when I was cutting out wheat and lactose.
A vegan can eat wheat but wouldn’t typically eat dairy, so if a vegan is eating bread all day then it isn’t necessarily better or healthier. Just because you are a meat eater doesn’t automatically make you unhealthy either.
Meat alternatives are promoted as being better for us, however it is too early to understand the true health impacts of long term use of meat alternative. Anything plant based is better however the process of creating fake meat is the key.
How are meat alternatives made
There are different methods, typically they use some form of soy protein or textured vegetable protein. Soy used to be popular, until controversial research started coming to the market flagging concerns about effects on male sex hormones, negative impact on thyroid blocking iodine absorption among other potential negative impacts. Many positive impacts have also been cited such as the positive effects on cholesterol levels cancer risk and menopause symptoms. Other types of proteins such as pea protein are becoming more commonly used.
Irrespective of the type of protein being used the one big factor that plays a key role in creating meat alternatives is the texture. Actual meat is fibrous so food manufacturers often have to alter the molecular structure of the protein being used. With soy for example using heat, acid or a solvent is often used. This is then run through a food extruder and is reshaped to give it texture.
Protein Fibration Process
However other types of proteins may be processed differently, wheat gluten for example has a more stretchy texture so is easier to modify.
Do meat alternatives taste like meat?
There are several meat alternative producers in the market. I have tried some but not all and have been impressed by the taste. Even some in the frozen range aren't too bad.
I wasn’t able to eat meat at some of my favourite restaurants but a whole new world opened up to me when restaurants started offering alternatives. In fact the first time I brought Abokado’s Vegan Katsu Curry which used ‘THIS™ Isn’t Chicken Goujons’, I was convinced that I had accidentally purchased the real chicken one even though I had asked prior to buying and had to double check again.
Pho also started offering ‘THIS™ Isn’t Chicken’ on their menu and even though Pho has always been my favourite Vietnamese restaurant my experience of going to Pho changed completely since they started introducing the range.
The company, THIS™ Isn’t Chicken claims it uses a blend of soy bean powder, water and pea protein to make their meat. Their website addresses the concerns of many and states that the soy beans are actually healthy in their opinion.
“Over the years, there has been some talk of how ‘isoflavones’ or ‘phytoestrogens’ in soy can detrimentally affect our hormone levels. But the current consensus within the scientific and nutritional communities, is that conversely – isoflavones found in soy are thousands of times weaker than oestrogen, and can actually help reduce the incidence of certain cancers. Additionally, soy does not lower your testosterone levels.”
Beyond Meat is another popular company supplying meat alternatives often used by chains such as honest burger. The proteins in Beyond Meat come from soy, yellow peas, mustard seeds, camelina and yeast.
Is being vegan more environmentally friendly?
According to a study by Center for Sustainable system, University of Michigan;
“Based on a comparative assessment of the current Beyond Burger production system with the 2017 beef LCA by Thoma et al, the Beyond Burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, has >99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than a ¼ pound of U.S. beef.”
The production of the meat is certainly better for the environment based on the research.
The ethical view
From an ethical standpoint not killing animals is also better. However that is the sticking point for most vegans.
A true vegan will not wear leather or products that have been used from animals. A fake vegan who wants to appear trendy will eat vegan food to be cool.
Still better to do some good than none at all and while environmental impact can be measured, it is too early to assess any health impact of long term consumption of meat alternatives.