Once on the fringes, the vegan lifestyle has become quite fashionable and has burst onto the mainstream. According to a poll conducted by Harris Interactive in 2011, about 2.5% of Americans are vegan, and this number is growing. In fact, Harris Interactive also reported that the number of Americans eating vegan meals, at least part of the time, has doubled since 2009. And food manufacturers have noted this trend and have hopped on board the vegan gravy train—offering a wide selection of plant-based foods such as, cheeses, pizzas, ice cream, and meat alternatives that are advertised as healthy alternatives to animal protein foods.
It’s great that there are now so many options to choose from, but are there health dangers lurking in what are marketed as healthy vegan foods? To be sure, there are many food manufacturers that produce truly healthy vegan foods, but there are also many vegan food products out there that are not so healthy. To avoid these health bombs—you need to get really good at reading food labels. Here’s what to look out for:
Too much sodium. How much sodium is too much? The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 1500 mg. of dietary sodium per day to reduce the risk developing hypertension and stroke. But Americans on average, get about 3500 mg. daily. If you are concerned about the amount of sodium in your diet, here are some things to keep in mind to help you reduce your sodium intake:
- When reading a food label look at the calories in a single serving and then look at the amount of sodium per serving. If the amount of sodium is greater than the amount of calories, then there is too much sodium in the product. For example, if there are 100 calories per serving and the sodium content per serving is 200 mg, then you know you have a high sodium product.
- Look for foods that have a sodium content equal to or less than the amount of calories per serving.
- Cook at home. This way, you can control how much sodium goes into your food. If you want to add a salty taste to your food sans sodium, consider a salt-free seasoning like Table Tasty by Benson’s Gourmet Seasonings.
Added oils. Are there added oils? Take a look at the list of ingredients. If you see oils of any kind, watch out! These added oils can promote weight gain. All oils are processed foods because they have been extracted from their original whole food source, e.g. olives. The extracted oils are 100% fat—devoid of much of the nutrients that are left in the original food source—and are rapidly taken up by the body to be stored as body fat. Instead, look for food ingredients that are whole food sources of fat, such as flax and chia seeds—the absorption of fat by the body is much slower—because, the fat is part of a complete package containing fiber and other phytochemicals. Your waistline will thank you.
Processed Soy. If you eat soy products, it’s important to know what type of soy is in the food you are consuming. Numerous studies have shown that soybeans contain anti-cancer compounds and have beneficial effects on cardiovascular health. However, the type of soy that provides those benefits is the low-processed variety, such as tofu, tempeh, and edamame. What you want to avoid is the processed stuff—ingredients like soy protein isolate or soy protein. Research has shown that processed soy is linked to higher Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1) levels in the body, and high levels of IGF-1 have been implicated in risks for cancer. So, you definitely want to steer clear. Also, because soybeans are one of the most genetically modified (GMO) crops in the world, it’s wise to go organic.
Got Casein? Casein is the main protein in dairy milk—which begs the question: What’s this stuff doing in vegan food products? Yet, as unbelievable as it might seem, casein is used in vegan products, particularly, in some vegan cheeses. This is why it’s so important to thoroughly read food labels! It gets worse, because, according to a study by Dr. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study, casein has been shown to be carcinogenic.
Garbagy grains. This is where food labels can get tricky. The front of the package will say something like, “Whole Grain Goodness in Every Bite!” This implies that you are getting a whole grain product. But, in reality, the food may not be 100% whole grain. Check the label to endure that all grains listed are, in fact, whole grain. For instance, wheat flour or wheat are not whole grain ingredients, but whole wheat flour is; as is whole rye, whole corn, etc. All grains listed must have “whole” in front of the name for the product to be 100% whole grain.
To your good health!