Why You May Need To Pay Closer Attention To Food Labels
First, I would like to preface this article by stating my intention is not to dissuade people from the vegan diet or alternative foods, rather, highlight concerns with inherent diet-related health implications. Instead, I encourage mindfulness and inquisitive label reading so that we avoid the same health pitfalls as we did from the elimination of fats in the 1990’s. I do not believe in shaming others for their health choices. At the end of the day, we are all trying to navigate through misinformation regarding health and wellness and I applaud anyone trying to take a step towards adopting a healthier lifestyle.
Sales of vegan foods have increased dramatically over the past year, topping $3.3 billion, a growth rate of nearly 20 percent! Clearly, the vegan diet is not just for vegans anymore as mainstream consumers are now opting for replacements foods. However, as the trend for plant-based diets grows, so does the interest in major food corporations looking to capitalize. We need to be aware and ensure we are not repeating the same health pitfalls like we have previously.
Let’s review the low-fat trend in the 1990’s. Food conglomerates promoted the low-fat diet craze by processing foods in order to eliminate fat. Throughout this process, not only were fats eliminated, but preservatives and sugars were added to fill the void, leading to many health implications like poor brain function and compromised heart health to name a few.
Fast forward to today, and it seems as though we are following a similar pattern. Nearly every day I come across some sort of processed, vegan friendly, food with ingredients that wreak havoc on gut health. Take for instance a popular meat alternative that is loaded with canola oil, a highly processed vegetable oil linked to countless health concerns like decreased brain function and impaired gut health. The same product also contains harmful ingredients like the preservative maltodextrin which has been linked to diabetes and gut dysfunction.
New studies also show that meat alternatives are extremely high in salt. In fact, according to a recent study, 28 percent of all meatless products examined were higher in salt than maximum targets set by Public Health England.
Milk alternatives are another vegan friendly food that can be loaded with harmful ingredients. In fact, two popular brands of almond milk contain natural flavors as ingredients. According to the Environmental Working Group, natural flavors are the fourth most common ingredient in food behind salt, water, and sugar yet is arguably no different than artificial flavors and can contain anywhere from 50 to 100 ingredients. While the ingredient may say “natural” it does not necessarily mean healthy as the mixture generally contains a combination of solvents and preservatives and likely will contain some artificial ingredients.
There are even egg replacements like this popular VeganEgg which is derived from the following ingredients: Organic Soymilk Powder* (Organic Soybeans), Modified Cellulose, Gellan Gum, Cellulose, Calcium Lactate (Plant Source), Carrageenan, Natural Flavors (contain Black Salt [Black Salt, Herbs]), Nutritional Yeast, Black Salt, Beta Carotene for Color. This alternative product contains several potentially harmful ingredients like cellulose, which, according to Dr. Hyman, is another word for sawdust that is often indigestible causing gas and digestive dysfunction. Carrageenan, another ingredient, is a potential carcinogen that has been linked to countless health ailments like ulcerative colitis, inflammation, cancer, and birth defects to name a few.
Again, the purpose of this article is not to demonize veganism, I think we can all learn something valuable from the vegan diet and that is the need to eat more plants. The Western Diet is severely lacking in nutrients as the majority of daily food consumption by the United States population is comprised of cereal grains, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, dairy products, and alcohol. These foods are generally low in fiber, a critical component of optimal gut health. In fact, individuals that consume diets high in fiber exhibited a more diverse microbiota population which is essential for optimal gut health.
However, we need to be aware that just because we are eliminating certain foods does not mean we are by any means healthier.
Alternatives, in moderation, may not have a detrimental impact on health if consumed in moderation and often times are quite necessary, especially during elimination diets. With that being said it is still important to be mindful about the foods you eat; remember, any substitute or alternative food is going to have to add back in what they take out, which generally consists of processed ingredients. Do not be fooled by the health halo effect, you know, the same effect brands used to trick people into thinking food is healthier. Most notably is the “All Natural” label that led people to believe they were eating a healthier product, when in reality, “All Natural” is an unregulated term that means virtually nothing on food labels and can be loaded with processed, GMO ingredients that wreak havoc on the gut. If consumed in moderation, these foods may not have as great of an impact on your health, however, if you are consuming dairy alternatives, egg replacements, meat substitutes, and other alternative processed food every single day, it can eventually lead to a decline in gut health and overall well-being causing further health complications.
This message is not to dissuade anyone from any particular diet, rather, encourage people to be mindful about the foods they eat and not to be coaxed into purchasing foods that are loaded with preservatives and chemicals. There are some quality alternative products on store shelves, so I encourage you to carefully read labels and ensure your diet is not heavily reliant on processed foods. Additionally, if you are loading up on replacement foods due to food allergies, you may want to consider an elimination and reintroduction diet while adamantly focusing on gut health and repairing the gut lining as allergies are generally an indication of leaky gut or gut dysfunction. Often times if we work towards healing the gut lining and repopulating the gut with beneficial bacteria, we can reverse our allergy symptoms and tolerate foods that once compromised our health.