What's wrong with vegan meat alternatives?

hamburger, vegan burger, plant-based burger, healthy burger, vegetarian burger
Are the vegan meat alternatives appearing on the market really aimed at improving your health, like they claim to be?

There has been an explosion in vegan-friendly products on the market which is great in one way as people who don't want to eat animal products have many more options but are these products always good replacements for their animal-based counterparts? 

Let me clarify something before I go any further`:

I don't give a damn what you eat, be it vegan, keto, paleo or whatever, as long as:

  • How you eat helps you achieve your goals (both health and moral)
  • You don't make others feel bad about how they eat
  • You don't lie to or misinform others (intentionally or otherwise) about diet choices


I think a properly planned, vegan diet can be incredibly healthy just like a properly planned omniverous diet. I'm a diet agnostic so I refuse to take sides in a matter that doesn't need sides. When it comes to nutrition, there shouldn't be a divide between diets whose followers think their diet is best based on the silly names people assign to them. I base my opinion on the current scientific evidence so I don't need to take sides.


So in this article, I'm going to be critical of some vegan products for one reason only:

I think they can be better and vegans shouldn't have to settle for poorly designed products riding the crest of a wave of popularity. THIS ISN'T AN ANTI-VEGAN ARTICLE!


"VEGAN" is so hot right now

I'm writing this in January or as some people have come to know it, "VEGANuary". The month of the year when a lot of people decide, based on their new years resolutions, that they should switch to a completely plant-based or vegan diet.


There are plenty of reasons to want to switch to such a diet:

  • Going plant-based generally means people greatly improve the quality of their diets with more fruit, vegetables and other unrefined/whole foods
  • It's potentially better for the environment*
  • Some people just don't want to eat animal products for moral reasons*

*This is a health blog so I'm not going to comment on these last two points


There has been such a jump in interest in vegan and plant-based diets that the food industry is jumping on the band wagon and there has been a surge in the availability of vegan alternatives to meat and dairy containing products. It has never been easier to go vegan!


vegan, bread, vegan bread, sandwich thin, plan-based
One of the many new products in my local supermarket taking advantage of the "vegan" marketing craze right now. (FYI most bread is vegan or at least 99% vegan, already)

So, are these products any good?

Before we answer that, we have to ask, "what are most vegan products replacing and what are they replacing them with?"

What are vegan products replacing?

As vegan diets eliminate animal based foods, the main ingredients being replaced are:

  1. Meat (animal meat, chicken, fish)
  2. Dairy products (milk, cheese, yoghurt)
  3. Eggs


What nutrients do these foods contain?

The foods I've mentioned above can be quite nutrient dense. I'm sure some people would like to argue this with me and state that animal foods are poor sources of nutrients so let me stop you right there because YOU'RE FACTUALLY INCORRECT.


Depending on the specific food from the list above, animal products can be high in:


That means that any diet that eliminates the foods I mentioned above should ensure that it replaces the nutrients that may be lacking (through proper diet planning and/or supplementation).


Interestingly enough, these aren't just "potential" risks as population studies have shown deficiencies in iron, zinc and B12 to be common in vegans and vegetarians {1-4} and the prevalence of low bone mineral density and high bone fracture rates in vegans may indeed be due to low calcium or protein intake (or both) {5,6}. 


Another thing to bear in mind is that certain nutrients aren't as bioavailable (easy to absorb from our gut and use in our bodies) when they come from plants {7}. Don't get me wrong, a poor omniverous diet can also be low in many essential nutrients, it's just a little easier for deficiencies to arise with a poor vegan diet.


*One thing to be very clear on is that a lot of non-plant-based, convenience products are not particularly balanced from a health perspective either (mostly due to excessive calories, saturated fat and due to a low content of whole plant foods. However, that would be an article on its own which I'm not going to get into today. 

Do vegan products provide enough of these nutrients?

The short answer is... IT DEPENDS ON THE PRODUCT.


It would take me a long time to go through all of the nutrients I mentioned above so for the purpose of this particular article I'm going to focus mostly on PROTEIN.

Why protein? Well, it's an important macronutrient (macro: we need it in large amounts that can be measure in grams) that is incredibly important for growth and repair and is also very beneficial for people trying to lose weight. Why does weight loss matter? Well, as unfortunate as it sounds, many people give Veganuary a go as an attempt to lose weight after the holidays... I personally think that's an awful reason to go vegan... but go figure. 


Any way, meals that are high in protein can help people feel fuller for longer making a diet easier to stick to {8} and also help people maintain muscle mass when dieting (especially when doing resistance exercise) {9} ... therefore I'm going to focus on protein. It's good stuff.


Looking at products on the market

I've done a little snooping of some of the new vegan products as well as those that have been around for a while and I want to show you some photos so you know what to look for yourself when reading labels.


NB: I've focused on 2 things in particular:

  • Convenience products because a lot of new vegan products are convenience foods like ready meals and in the time-poor world we live in these days, a lot of people are going to opt for them.
  • Products that I deem to be of lower nutritional quality, simply because I want people to know what to look out for (there are great vegan products out there but for explaining concepts I find using extremes to be really useful)


Katsu Curry Ready Meal

katsu curry, vegan, plant based, plantivore, veganuary, asda
A great whole foods curry let down by a shockingly low protein value

Vegan Burger Patty 1

vegan burger, vegeburger, heck, plant based, healthy
A vege-burger doesn't need to be made with vegetables alone. There wasn't even a real source of protein in this.

Vegan Burger Patty 2

vegan burger, vegeburger, heck, plant based, healthy
From a protein perspective, this is a much better attempt but there are very few if any whole foods used to make these

Vegan Cheese

vegan cheese, vegetarian, tesco, free from, plant based, healthy
The main ingredients in this are oil and starch so it was never going to have any protein. Luckily they have supplemented it with calcium.

Vegan Sausages

vegan sausage, vegetarian, tesco, plant chef, plant based, healthy
I've had some vegan sausages with decent protein... these have very little

Vegan Steak

vegan steak, vegetarian, vivera, plant based, healthy, vegetarian meat
This on the other hand has a normal amount of protein (and fat, for better or worse) as well as being supplemented with iron and B12

Vegan Jackfruit Noodles...WHY?

vegan meal, vegetarian, bol, plant based, healthy, vegetarian meat, jackfruit
Fruit is not a meat alternative...

I'm going to use this opportunity to just say how ridiculous it is that Jackfruit is a common meat-substitute these days. 


For anyone who's not familiar, Jackfruit is a large tropical fruit which tastes absolutely  phenomenal when it's fresh and ripe. Recently people discovered that you can shred it and flavour it so it looks like pulled pork. The only issue is... IT'S A BLOODY FRUIT... i.e. it's virtually devoid of protein and is the last thing I would consider to be a useful alternative to meat.


Sorry, I just needed to get that out of my system.


A lot of products are seriously lacking in protein

I was genuinely disappointed to see so many vegan products/meals coming up so low in protein. Big food retailers often employ food scientists to develop new products and it really seems like the goal was simply to produce an animal-product-free meal instead of a nutritious meal that was animal-product-free.


Obviously, not everything we eat needs to be nutritionally optimal (it's perfectly fine to eat something simply because it's tasty) but if people are eliminating large amounts of nutrient-dense foods from their diets, it would be good if they had equally nutrient-dense alternatives to replace them with.


Using some of these foods every now and then is fine but I don't think they should form a large part of peoples diets, especially if they don't have better protein sources included.

Low-Protein Whole Foods Vs High-Protein Processed Foods


One thing that is quite apparent from looking at these products is that those that use more whole food ingredients like vegetables, legumes and wholegrains, tend to be very low in protein. This is because a lot of plant-foods are not protein dense and getting enough into a product would mean it's volume and probably calories would increase a lot too.


On the other hand, the products that were high-protein, tended to be made with much more highly processed ingredients like soy, wheat and pea protein isolates as well as refined oils and starches. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with these ingredients...


BUT... one of the common reasons for switching to a plant-based diet is to improve ones health by eating more plants. A lot of the more refined products eliminate many of the beneficial components of plants (fibre, vitamins, minerals, phyonutrients etc.)


So with many of these products it seems that you can have either whole foods, plant based ingredients OR high-protein... but not both.


A well balanced vegan diet can provide both of these using some added refined protein products and supplements on top of a high plant base... but in isolation, many of these products on the market now are just not balanced.


Ingredients: What to look out for

 When it comes to replacing high-protein animal products in foods, one would hope it would be replaced with something similarly high in protein. Possible options I like to see listed at the start of an ingredients list include:

  • Soy protein (isolate, textured soy protein, tofu, soy beans etc) 
  • Pea protein (isolate, whole peas)
  • Other legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils etc)
  • Mycoprotein (a protein made from the fermentation of a specific fungus, used in products like Quorn)


The advantage of soy is it's a very high quality protein. Plant proteins tend to be lower in quality than animal protein: this simply means that they don't provide all the essential amino acids that we need for growth and repair. Soy, is rare amongst plant proteins in that it does have all these amino acids. Not as many as some meat proteins and definitely not as much as dairy protein but still a very good amount.

Soy (and pea) protein isolates also have the benefit of being lower in calories than many "whole" vegan proteins, as much of the carbohydrate and fat has been removed during processing.


The problem with soy or pea isolates or textured soy proteins is that they are quite heavily processed and tend to be very low in the other nutrients that make plant-based diets healthy (fibre, some vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients).


Whole Legumes

Whole legumes (including soy and pea) make up for the short comings of isolates by being full of the beneficial plant components such as fibre, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients etc.


On the other hand, they'll be a little higher in calories due to the starches naturally present in legumes. Being in their whole form means that some of those nutrients and protein will be lost in digestion (soy protein isolates tend to be digested much more readily than in their whole form).


Wheat Protein?

Wheat protein is used commonly when formulating a lot of food products for a couple of reasons:

  • It's cheap (and plentiful)
  • It offers a nice chewy texture to vegan meat alternatives (thanks to the elastic properties of gluten) 


The problem is, it's a very low quality protein (although this can be improved by combining wheat (or other grain proteins) with legume proteins. This is known as protein complementarity or combining different proteins to get a complete mixture of amino acids.


Added Vitamins & Minerals

Some products do genuinely work to improve on the short-comings of certain meat alternatives by fortifying them with vitamins and minerals like iron and B12 (see the photo of the vegan steak below) or calcium in some dairy alternatives (see the photo of the vegan cheese below).

This is a step in the right direction i.e. making processed vegan foods that provide the vitamins someone might miss out on by not eating animal-products.


Fruit & Vegetables???

If the main ingredient in your vegan meat-alternative is a vegetable like sweet potato, beets, carrots, kale, pumpkin or corn (and yes I'm aware it's a grain), then chances are high that it's going to be very low in protein. Just check out the meals above. The same goes for anything made with jackfruit (I still can't fathom how this has become a thing?).

Choose Wisely

You'd be forgiven for thinking I've been very hard on vegan products... I have been because as you've seen there are a lot of sub-par convenience meals out there.

The many health benefits from vegan diets come from a combination of increasing fruit, veg, whole grain and legume intake along with reducing reliance on processed foods which leads to a lower calorie intake. If you can do all that while maintaining adequate protein, vitamins and minerals, then you're onto a potentially very healthy diet.


None of that last paragraph requires you to give up animal products but if you do, for whatever reason, I hope the information here helps you make some better food choices .


Eat well, folks.


Have you been working out? You're looking good!
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  2. Schüpbach R, Wegmüller R, Berguerand C, Bui M, Herter-Aeberli I. Micronutrient status and intake in omnivores, vegetarians and vegans in Switzerland. Eur J Nutr. 2017;56(1):283–293. doi:10.1007/s00394-015-1079-7
  3. Pawlak R, Bell K. Iron Status of Vegetarian Children: A Review of Literature. Ann Nutr Metab. 2017;70(2):88–99. doi:10.1159/000466706
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  8. Drummen M, Tischmann L, Gatta-Cherifi B, Adam T, Westerterp-Plantenga M. Dietary Protein and Energy Balance in Relation to Obesity and Co-morbidities. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2018;9:443. Published 2018 Aug 6. doi:10.3389/fendo.2018.00443
  9. Longland TM, Oikawa SY, Mitchell CJ, Devries MC, Phillips SM. Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016;103(3):738–746. doi:10.3945/ajcn.115.119339

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