What’s New for Vegan Health?
World Vegan Day on the 1st of November helped draw attention to veganism. As this style of eating becomes more mainstream many manufacturers are creating innovative products to help make the transition away from animal products easier and more enjoyable.
If a plant-based diet and lifestyle is becoming important to you then now is a great time to embrace all the wonderful new products out there that make being a vegan a piece of cake (minus eggs of course)!.
For those of you who are about to plunge straight in, it’s always good to be well informed before you get started, especially if a new eating plan involves removing foods that you may find hard to give up. To make it a little easier we’ve put together some helpful tips to make sure your meals are healthy, balanced and nutritious, but we’ve also included some of the fast food treats available to vegans, so you don’t feel left out!
Vegan nutrition essentials
Vegan purists may want to eat a completely plant-based diet that doesn’t include any meat imitation products. There is so much that nature has to offer, eating processed foods that mimic meat are just not necessary for many dedicated vegans. It’s all about the balance though, and the biggest issue with vegan nutrition is ensuring the diet has a variety of protein sources that provide the body with the nine ‘essential’ amino acids it needs to function. Getting these essential amino acids is really important but you can only get them through dietary sources as the body is unable to produce them.
A protein that contains the full spectrum of essential amino acids is considered a ‘complete’ protein. Almost all animal-derived foods are complete protein sources, so if you’re opting out, you’ll need to find alternatives to ensure long term health. For the newly initiated this can sometimes be tricky because most plant-based foods don’t have the correct proportions and are considered ‘incomplete’ proteins.
However, there are exceptions to the rule - quinoa, buckwheat, hempseeds, soybeans and blue-green algae are good sources of complete proteins although they may not contain as much protein per serving as animal products. How to get the full range of essential amino acids? Just make sure you eat a good variety of plant-sourced foods over the course of the day, it’s the sum total that counts.
Vegan-friendly foods that are no-holds-barred include all vegetables, rice, potatoes, avocados, nuts, seeds, grains, herbs, beans, pulses, legumes, tempeh, tofu, Quorn, plant-based milks, soya products and all plant-based flours, vegetable oils and nut-butters.
Get to know your grains and seeds
- Swap wheat for buckwheat - despite its name buckwheat is a pseudo-grain not wheat. It is also gluten-free and, as a complete protein, can be useful as a grain or in salads. Buckwheat flour can be used for baking and making pancakes.
- Soak your grains overnight – to improves digestibility. Soak muesli mixes in coconut or oat milk.
- Quinoa - can be used like rice, added in flake or puffed form to muesli mixes or bought as quinoa chunks or mince. It is also great included in a salad, mixed with roasted vegetables and as a balanced addition to a hearty vegetable soup.
- Amaranth - is an ancient grain and makes a filling gluten-free porridge. As a flour it can be used to make gluten free pizza base and bread.
- Spelt, oats and kamut - are also rich in protein.
Be selective with soya
Choose fermented forms such as miso, tempeh, natto, Sojasun yoghurts and Soyami live-cultured soya-based ‘cream cheese’. Fermented foods supply protein in a more digestible form and they contribute to healthy gut bacteria. Soy milk, yogurt and desserts tend to be heavily processed and are made from GMO soybeans. Good tips are
- Eat tofu and tempeh once or twice a week – As well as being complete proteins they are also rich in plant oestrogens, which help to support hormone balance.
- Textured vegetable proteins and ‘meat substitutes’ - are generally quite processed and often contain ingredients you might want to avoid such as hydrogenated fats and GMO. Some companies now offer organic, gluten-free soya mince, which is minimally processed so may be a better option.
Eat plenty of nuts and seeds
The digestibility of nuts can also be increased by soaking overnight in water or lightly steaming. Nuts and seeds can also be ground to release more of their essential fats. Nut butters are also delicious on crackers, in smoothies or used to thicken sauces. Nut butters to try are almond, cashew, hazelnut, walnut and of course peanut butter! Nut based milks like are also a very popular alternative to cow’s milk. Almond and hazelnut are now freely available in health food shops and supermarkets.
Seeds are delicious when dry toasted in a hot pan or oven baked with chilli and a little salt for a tasty snack. You can also add to salads or roasted vegetables for extra texture and flavour. Tahini is a sesame spread, delicious and really versatile. You can use it in salad dressings, to flavour noodles, thicken sauces and make hummus. You can also spout seeds in the same way as you would sprout pulses. It’s easy to do and you get a highly nutritious addition to your salads and sandwiches.
Become a bean connoisseur
- Vegan diets are often short on the amino acid lysine. As butter beans are a good source, remember to add these to soups, stews and curries.
- Ideally soak your own beans. The tinning process over denatures the protein & other nutrients. Use tinned beans minimally as a back-up when you’re short on time.
- Add Kombu strips to beans and chickpeas to enhance digestibility and neutralise goitrogens (substances that can impair thyroid hormone synthesis)1.
- Sprouted beans are nutrient powerhouses. Sprouting increases their protein content and gives them higher levels of amino acids and other vitamins and minerals2. Try sprouted mung beans to add texture and flavour to salads.
Experiment with sea vegetables & algae
Seaweeds and sea algae are rich in trace minerals and protein and combine well with other vegetables and grains. Kelp, nori, wakame and arame are good sea vegetables to experiment with. Spirulina, chlorella and wild green algae are excellent protein ‘building’ foods with a high chlorophyll content and good micronutrient profile. These green powders are great for adding to smoothies or juices to fortify your breakfast.
Hidden controversial vegan foods
This is where it can get a bit tricky, the obvious foods would be any animal flesh and egg products or foods derived from animals such as butter, milk, yogurt, cheese and cream. You also have to look out for hidden animal products, which means becoming an avid label reader. Here are some ‘animal’ derived ingredients to be aware of:
- Albumin – The protein component of egg whites, used in many processed foods
- Anchovy – small salty fish used in Worcester sauce and Caesar salad dressing
- Ambergris – from whale intestines, used as a flavoring in foods and drinks
- Animal shortening (lard, suet, butter) - used as an ingredient in foods such as biscuits, cakes, tortillas, refried beans, piecrusts, dumplings and crackers.
- Bone Ash – from animals and often used to whiten sugar
- Bone meal – crushed animal bones – used in some supplements and as a source of calcium in toothpaste
- Casein – milk protein used in no-dairy creamers and soy cheese
- Chitosan: derived from the shells of shellfish. can be used as a pesticide for fruits and vegetables such as bananas and as a preservative in winemaking.
- Cochineal – red pigment from crushed cochineal insect, used as a food colouring in many foods such as beetroot juice and red apple sauce.
- Cysteine - Also known as L-cysteine - used in the production of commercial bread and dough products and is sourced primarily from bird feathers and human hair. Can also be found in cigarettes.
- Gelatine - (made from animal bones) used as a thickener for sweets, ice cream yogurt, jelly
- Glucose (dextrose) – from animal tissue and fluids, although it can come from fruits. Used in baked goods, soft drinks, sweets and icing.
- Isinglass - Gelatine from the air bladder of sturgeon and other freshwater
- fish. Used in some jelly desserts and alcoholic drinks
- Lactic acid – formed by bacteria on lactose (milk sugar). Used in cheese, yogurt, pickles, olives, sauerkraut, sweets, fruit preserves and frozen desserts.
- Lecithin – from egg yolks and animal tissues also plants. Used in breakfast cereals, chocolate, baked goods, sweets, vegetable oil sprays, margarine.
- Lactose (saccharum, lactin, D-lactose) – a milk sugar used as a culture medium for souring milk and also in processed foods.
- L-cysteine – animal derived used in some bakery products
- Monoglycerides (glycerin) – from animal fat used in margarines, cake mixes and sweets
- Oleic acid (oleinic acid) – from animal tallow (solid fat) used in synthetic butter, vegetable fats and oils, sweets, cheese, ice-cream and condiments.
- Polysorbates – derivative of fatty acids used in some foods
- Rennin, rennet – enzymes from calves’ stomachs used in cheesemaking and other coagulated dairy products
- Suet – hard white animal fat, used in mincemeat, margarine, suet pudding, dumplings and pastries
- Whey – a watery liquid that separates from the milk solids in cheese-making used in cakes, biscuits and breads
Vegan supplements to make life easier
Everyone’s diet needs a little helping hand at times and vegans are no exception. The following supplements are good choices for maintaining a healthy vegan lifestyle.
Without a carefully balanced diet, vegan eating can potentially come with health issues. According to research, compared to meat-eaters, 78% of vegans have lower blood levels of vitamin B123. They also come out worse than vegetarians when it comes to B12 deficiency4.
Vegans are routinely asked by health professionals to ensure they supplement with vitamin B12 otherwise they raise their risk of heart disease. This may be due to an accumulation of homocysteine3, which has adverse effects on smooth muscle cells as well as altering arterial structure and function. Cardiovascular disease may develop as a result6.
Keep an eye out for symptoms that may indicate you have a B12 deficiency such as: difficulty focusing, fatigue, mood swings, depression, nausea, muscle cramps, joint pain, sore tongue and mouth, reduced appetite, dizziness, stomach ache6.
Supplementing with high quality well absorbed liposomal supplements is an option that can help to support your diet and put your mind at rest. Altrient B is a liposomal B complex that ensures you have all the B vitamins you need to support a vegan diet including the all-important vitamin B12. Altrient’s liposomal formulation provides superior absorption and uptake in the body, delivering the nutrients rapidly to the blood and to the cells that need them avoiding gastrointestinal distress.
Vegans are also advised to support their diet with additional vitamin D as inadequate exposure to sunshine leaves them at greater risk of a deficiency. Food sources of vitamin D are minimal and mainly from fish oil, fatty fish like salmon and mackerel and egg yolks.
The only plant source available is from mushrooms (the levels rise if you leave them outside in the sunshine). Research shows that when fresh button mushrooms are left outside in the midday sun from 15 to 120 minutes, they produce in excess of 10mcg of vitamin D2 per 100g. This is a significant amount and approaches the daily requirement for most countries. Oyster and Shitake mushrooms are shown to be two of the best types for generating vitamin D when exposed to sunlight7.
When supplementing vegans should ensure they choose a plant sourced vitamin D. Although vitamin D3 supplements are often sourced from sheep’s wool, there are many available now that are sourced from plants such as lichen. Vitamin D3 is shown to be more readily absorbed by the body8 so it makes sense to opt for this form for maximum benefits.
Iron is vital for ensuring oxygen is transported to the cells. Without it brain and immune function would suffer, and energy levels would fall. According to research as much as 61-97% of women across Europe have a dietary iron intake lower than the recommended daily amount9. The iron from plant foods is less readily absorbed than (heme) iron found in animal products, which means vegans may have lower iron stores.
Some compounds in tea and coffee affect the absorption of iron, however vitamin C helps your body to absorb iron. A vegan would be well advised to supplement the diet with vitamin C rather than iron as excessively high levels can be toxic to the body. Early symptoms of iron toxicity include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea10.
Altrient C provides a high-quality well-absorbed vitamin C that is superior to most standard oral vitamin C products. Liposomal vitamin C bypasses the gastrointestinal obstacles that may affect absorption, delivering vitamin C rapidly to the blood and to the cells where it is most needed.
Many people think that you can only obtain calcium from milk and other dairy products but there are plenty of plant foods that provide sufficient calcium to meet the body’s daily requirements, in particular, ‘greens’ and ‘beans’. If you’re worried, you’re not getting enough of these, supplementing is a sensible option.
Innovative vegan products are on the rise
In 2018, Germany and the UK had the highest share of all new vegan products globally11, with the UK launching more vegan products than any other nation in the same year 12. The UK meat-free market is expected to grow to £658 million in 202112. So, what can you expect to see on supermarket shelves?
Non-dairy milk is firmly established in supermarkets worldwide, now you can enjoy almond, rice, coconut, hazelnut and oat milk to name a few. To add to that a new yellow split pea milk has arrived on the scene with flavours like banana and chocolate.
Other substitutes for firm favourites are expanding in the vegan market too such as vegan yoghurt (generally made from soya), vegan cheese and vegan ice-cream. And the first ever plant-based chocolate mousse is also currently available in the UK. Just because you’re vegan doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy delicious treats occasionally.
Cheese is often one of the hardest foods to give up as a vegan, but inventive manufacturers have come up with such a good range of cheese alternatives that it’s difficult to know the difference. Ingredients in vegan cheese range from peas, and soya to mushrooms.
Burgers for some are also hard to resist, fortunately researchers working for ‘impossible foods’ have discovered the molecule that gives meat its flavour (heme) and developed a plant-based burger using fermented yeast that is a huge success, but you’ll have to go to America or Singapore to try it.
Another completely vegan meat-free alternative on the rise is ‘seitan’, also called wheat meat, or mock meat. This meat substitute is made from wheat gluten and is highly processed. It’s made by rinsing wheat dough to remover the starch, leaving dense strands of pure gluten protein. Like wheat, it is lacking in the amino acid lysine. If you’re trying to stay gluten-free it’s not for you.
The rise in meat alternatives has unfortunately resulted in a great deal of packaged, processed vegan foods appearing on the shelves. For vegan beginners, it’s worth noting that just because a product is vegan doesn’t mean it’s always healthy. Many packaged vegan foods contain a vast amount of sugar, salt, processed fats and other additives.
Vegan Fast Food
If you’re not a vegan purist or simply want to enjoy the sinful pleasures of a take-away like everyone else. Several food outlets have obliged and offer delicious meat alternatives.
This is what’s on offer in the UK:
- KFC – Try the ‘imposter’ vegan chicken burger (made from Quorn)
- Greggs – the famous vegan sausage roll was so popular they added a vegan steak bake to their menu
- TGI Friday’s restaurant chain have added a vegan burger to their menu (made from mushrooms, beetroot and plant-based protein)
- Chicago Town pizzas have launched a sticky BBQ Jackfruit pizza available in supermarkets. Jackfruit is an un-ripened fruit that has a meat-like texture. It’s very versatile and absorbs the flavours it is cooked with.
Vegan Menu Ideas
Just getting started? Let’s look at a typical non-vegan menu and give you vegan alternatives to show how easy it could be.
N.B Before making any of the above meals always check the labels on packaged ingredients.
Jacqueline Newson BSc (Hons) Nutritional Therapy
- Bajaj JK, Salwan P, Salwan S. Various Possible Toxicants Involved in Thyroid Dysfunction: A Review. J Clin Diagn Res. 2016;10(1): FE01-FE3. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2016/15195.7092
- Sibian MS, Saxena DC, Riar CS. Effect of germination on chemical, functional and nutritional characteristics of wheat, brown rice and triticale: a comparative study. J Sci Food Agric. 2017 Oct;97(13):4643-4651. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.8336. Epub 2017 Apr 26. PMID: 28370158.
- Johnston CS and Venti CA. Modified Food Guide Pyramid for Lactovegetarians and Vegans.American Society for Nutritional Sciences. J. Nutr. 2002; 132: 1050–1054.
- Roman Pawlak, Scott James Parrott, Sudha Raj, Diana Cullum-Dugan, Debbie Lucus, How prevalent is vitamin B12 deficiency among vegetarians?, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 71, Issue 2, 1 February 2013, Pages 110–117, https://doi.org/10.1111/nure.12001
- Ganguly P, Alam SF. Role of homocysteine in the development of cardiovascular disease. Nutr J. 2015; 14:6. Published 2015 Jan 10. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-14-6.
- Wolffenbuttel BHR, Wouters HJCM, Heiner-Fokkema MR, van der Klauw MM. The Many Faces of Cobalamin (Vitamin B12) Deficiency. Mayo Clin Proc Innov Qual Outcomes. 2019;3(2):200-214. Published 2019 May 27. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocpiqo.2019.03.002
- Cardwell G, Bornman JF, James AP, Black LJ. A Review of Mushrooms as a Potential Source of Dietary Vitamin D. Nutrients. 2018;10(10):1498. Published 2018 Oct 13. doi:10.3390/nu10101498
- NIH. Vitamin D Fact sheet for health professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/[accessed 8.10.20]
- Milman NT. Dietary Iron Intake in Women of Reproductive Age in Europe: A Review of 49 Studies from 29 Countries in the Period 1993–2015. Hindawi Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism 2019; Article ID 7631306: 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1155/2019/7631306
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- European data journalism network. Europe is going veg. https://www.europeandatajournalism.eu/eng/News/Data-news/Europe-is-going-veg#:~:text=What%20was%20once%20a%20fringe,estimates%20it%20at%20about%206. [accessed 6.10.20]
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