Twenty years ago you’d be hard pressed to find a single shop that sold oat milk. But today it’s never been easier to go vegan, with manufacturers recreating just about every single dish you can imagine.
Entire supermarket aisles have been dedicated to plant-based products, from vegan cheeses to meat-free burgers and non-dairy ice cream.
But while advocates wax lyrical about the health benefits of cutting out animal products, experts are increasingly warning about the dearth of nutrients in many vegan items.
To achieve the impossible task of making bland vegetables or tofu credible substitutes, food makers often have to cram them full of unhealthy oils, starch and other ingredients high in saturated fat, sugar and salt. In many cases, they are higher in calories and lower in vital nutrients than animal-based products.
MailOnline has now collated some of the worst offenders, as per the country’s leading experts:
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS
• Eat at least 5 servings of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count
• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain
• 30 grams of fiber a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 servings of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on
• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options
• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts
• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day
• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide
Sausages and bacon
With more vegans than ever living in Britain now and warm temperatures here to stay over the coming weeks, thousands of meat-free sausages and burgers will be fried on BBQs across the country.
But while vegan sausages and bacon tend to be lower in fat, they can contain more salt and sugar than meat options and are often lacking in key vitamins found in the real thing.
Dr Duane Mellor, a dietitian at Aston Medical School in Birmingham, said that consumers believe vegan products are healthy but said it’s important to check the label and be aware that ‘just because something is plant-based does not mean it is healthy’.
‘Check for salt and remember unlike meat many vegan meat replacements do not contain the same levels of iron and vitamin B12 essential for health, keeping our blood cells and nerves working well,’ Dr Mellor added.
Vegan sausages and bacon are usually made out of soy and wheat protein or pea protein.
However, unlike meat, these forms of protein are low in essential amino acids, which are necessary for healthy bones, tissue repair and absorbing nutrients.
Studies have also shown that the body absorbs around two per cent less protein from vegan substitutes compared to real meat.
The products are piled with salt to make them taste like the meaty originals, which get their juiciness and taste from animal fats.
And experts warn the vegan versions can also be high in trans fat – the type of fat that damages heart health the most by raising bad cholesterol and lowering the good kind.
To give them the same oomf as the meaty originals, vegan alternatives also contain plant-based 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 are also high in saturated fat and eating too much has been linked with a higher risk of bowel cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and strokes.
Those shopping for their dinner may assume that vegetable-based ready meals are healthier than those packed with processed meat.
But they are often saltier than similar versions made with beef, chicken or pork, which are already very high in salt, and they can contain twice as much sugar than meat-based versions.
Too much sodium in the diet can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
Professor Gunter Kuhnle, an expert in nutrition and food science at the University of Reading, told MailOnline that even regardless of the ingredients included, vegan options do not have ‘the same nutritional content’ unless they are fortified.
‘I’m not sure all consumers will remember that if they eat vegan meat alternatives, they might consume less iron or vitamin B12,’ he said.
Iron is needed to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. Eating too little iron — which can be found in liver, red meat and beans — can lead to anemia.
B12 is also needed to make red blood cells, keep the nervous system healthy and absorb 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, campaign manager for Action on Salt, told MailOnline that it’s important to know a ‘plant-based’ or ‘vegan’ label does not qualify a product as ‘healthy’ as some ready-made meals have ‘excessive amounts of hidden salt and saturated fat’.
‘This is why we need to see mandatory and clear front of pack nutritional information to make it easier for shoppers to make genuine, informed healthy choices,’ she said. ‘Too much salt raises our blood pressure, which is the major cause of strokes and heart disease.’
HOW MUCH SALT SHOULD I EAT?
Eating too much salt can increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Adults should eat a maximum of 6g of salt per day.
Between 75 and 80 per cent of the salt people eat is in processed and convenience foods, such as sauces and meat.
For every gram of salt cut from Britons’ average daily intake, there would be 6,000 fewer deaths from strokes and heart attacks per year.
Most labels now give the amount of salt contained in food per portion.
Foods are considered to be low salt and have a green label if they contain less than 0.3g per 100g.
Products with medium salt levels have less than 1.5g per 100g, which is indicated through an amber label.
And products with high amounts of salt have a red label, meaning they contain 1.5g per 100g or 1.8g per serving.
For many people, the hardest things about going vegan is giving up cheese.
Manufacturers have desperately tried to recreate the creamy taste and moist texture of cheese without the dairy.
But, like other vegan versions, plant-based cheese substitutes have ‘little nutritional value’, according to nutritionist Richard Hoffman.
Plant-based cheese uses starch and vegetable oils — such as coconut oil and palm oil — as the main ingredients to make it look like the real thing.
The gut breaks down starch into sugar, with too much leading to weight gain, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
And vegetable oils are ‘even worse’, as despite claims that coconut oil is healthy, it is ‘almost entirely’ saturated fat, Mr Hoffman, from Hertfordshire University, said in The Conversation.
Lauric acid, the main type of saturated fat in coconut oil, pushes up 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 30g 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 linked to a high risk of heart disease.
Scientists believe this may be down to the saturated fat occurring naturally in cheese not being absorbed by the body as much as those in oils and meats.
Those eating vegan cheese may also miss out on the nutritional benefits of dairy cheese, which naturally contains protein, calcium, iodine, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. Manufacturers need to add these nutrients to their vegan cheese for consumers to get the same benefits — but not all do so, Mr Hoffman said.
Yoghurts are one of the best foods for slimmers looking to low-calorie dense meals — and dairy-free versions allow vegans to get in on the action.
While the traditional products are a rich source of protein and vitamins such as calcium, vitamin D and zinc, vegan alternatives do not naturally contain many of these compounds and they are often not fortified with them.
Plant-based yoghurts, which are usually made with fermented soya or coconut milk, can have as little as a tenth of the protein of normal yoghurt, double the calories and be packed with saturated fat.
One pot can contain as much as 10g of saturated fat—half of a woman’s and a third of a man’s recommended daily intake. Eating too much can push up levels of bad cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
And, like dairy-based versions, some vegan yoghurts are made with artificial colors and sweeteners.
However, they do tend to have added probiotics, live bacteria and yeast that are thought to boost bacteria in the gut, such as such as Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus, which improve digestion.
Dr Carmen Piernas, 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 provide healthier alternatives.
Donuts and other sweet snacks
Tucking into sweet treats occasionally won’t do too much harm.
But experts warned that despite vegan branding, plant-based donuts and chocolate offer no extra nutritional benefit.
Vegan versions of Britain’s favorite sweet treats often have similar calories, sugar and salt to traditional versions. And Dr Hoffman told MailOnline that plant-based snacks are ‘almost always ultra-processed foods’.
While processing food includes normal cooking techniques such as roasting and boiling, ultra-processed foods are usually made of cheap ingredients such as vegetable oil, starch and sugar and combined with artificial colors and flavors.
This is ‘a concern’ because of the strong links between junk food and ‘an increased risk of obesity and a whole range of chronic diseases including heart diseases and cancers’, Dr Hoffman said.
This is thought to be because of their low nutritional value, coupled with high levels of sugar, fat and trans-fat.
‘Another important point is that the studies on the health benefits of eating a vegan diet come from vegans who eat mostly whole-foods — vegetables, fruit, pulses,’ Dr Hoffman said.
He added: ‘There is a now a new generation of vegans who are eating a lot of ultra-processed foods as part of their vegan diet and this may make their vegan diet far less healthy.’
He said this is ‘a concern’ because of the strong links between junk food and ‘an increased risk of obesity and a whole range of chronic diseases including heart diseases and cancers’.
Plant-based ice creams can have up to a third more sugar to boost their taste while also containing half the protein of milk-based scoops.
One standard vegan ice cream cone can have up to 16g of sugar and 2g of protein, on average, compared to 11g of sugar and 1.6g of protein in the original version.
And a tub of original cookie dough ice cream has as much as 19g of protein, while the vegan option has just 9g.
Vegan versions may also be packed with more saturated fat, if they are made with coconut milk rather than cow’s milk.
Professor Gunter said that foods consumed for indulgence, which is almost everything sweet, tends to fall into the category of having no nutritional benefits.
He warned that they also increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and other diseases.
But it is important to keep in mind that indulging in occasional sweet treats could have wider health benefits by improving mood, Professor Gunter said.