But leaving aside the taste – after all, sales suggest plenty of people do like them – are the new vegan substitutes really the answer to our health and climate woes, especially when most – soy, jackfruit, coconut – have to be imported? Or are we being sold a (soy-based, lab-grown, cruelty-free) turkey?
In terms of our bodies, the nub of the problem was summed up by Dr Małgorzata Desmond of University College London and the Children’s Memorial Health Institute, Warsaw, when she said: “Just eating plant-based diets is no guarantee of health, we still need to select healthy foods.”
This is echoed by Andrea Rymer, a dietician at the Vegan Society, “We already consume too much salt and saturated fat,” she says. “And not enough fruit and vegetables. Some of this is coming through into the vegan food industry and a lot of ultra processed foods (UPFs) are being produced.”
UPFs, she adds, “don’t hold a high nutritional value, and a lot can contain too much fat, too much salt and a lot of free sugars”. Better sources of vegan protein, she says, include beans, chickpeas, nuts, lentils, hemp seeds and soy protein such as tofu. But vegans who have chosen the diet for ethical or climate reasons, and still enjoy the taste and texture of meat dairy, will find plant-based copies plug the gap.
Gunter Kuhnle, professor of food and nutritional sciences at the University of Reading, is more focused on nutritional balance than levels of processing. “The problem is that when something becomes popular, a fashion, people don’t think about it properly. A lot of people believe that if you can buy something, it is safe – people eat replacement products without checking the differences.” Milk is a case in point.
“Drinking soy milk is not the same as drinking cow’s milk – if you’re reliant on milk for most of your calcium or protein and switch to a plant-based drink, you could run into problems. The fatty acid content is different, and it contains isoflavins that can interfere with your hormone system, and can be an issue for people with thyroid problems.”