Just 15 years ago, vegans were a rarity and it was virtually impossible to find vegan processed foods in supermarkets (at least foods which were labeled as such). Now, the ranks of vegans are growing. Depending on which poll you go by, 0.5% to 2.5% of the US population is vegan. So, it is no surprise that big business is stepping in to profit from the growing vegetarian demographic.
Now, it is possible to find all sorts of vegetarian and vegan processed foods at your local supermarket. While these foods certainly make it easier to be a vegetarian, they don’t make life healthier. The top brands of vegetarian processed foods are mostly owned by big names associated with junk foods, like Kraft and Dean.
These big brands have done a good job of transforming the public’s image of soy and other veggie foods. They play up their mock meats as good low-fat sources of protein. They tout the benefits of soy protein and recommend them for conditions ranging from diabetes to menopause.
Most of us are smart enough to realize that vegan mock meats and other processed foods aren’t exactly healthy. Just like with other processed foods, they contain high amounts of sodium and low amounts of nutrients and fiber. However, few realize just how unhealthy – and downright harmful – these vegan processed foods can be.
Genetically Modified Soy
The first problem with vegan processed foods is that they mostly contain genetically modified soy. The list of problems associated with GMOs is incredibly long: sterility, liver problems, immune problems, low birth weight…
Textured Vegetable Protein & Soy Isolates
As if the risks of GM foods weren’t bad enough, vegan processed foods (especially fake meats) often contain textured soy or vegetable protein or soy isolates. These are made with toxic chemical called hexane. Hexane helps separate the proteinsn and fats from soy (or other ingredients) so it gets that meaty texture. Hexane is a byproduct of gasoline refining.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has classified hexane as a neurotoxin. In large quantities, it can cause serious nerve damage. Hexane use in food manufacturing is currently not regulated by the FDA.
Once protein has been extracted using hexane, it can be dried and turned into soy isolate, TVP, or TSP. Or it can be put through an additional step to turn it into hydrolyzed protein.
To make hydrolyzed protein, the protein is boiled for days in a vat of hydrochloric acid and then neutralized. As a result of this chemical process, one of the protein’s amino acids becomes glutamic acid, which you probably know better as its salt form monosodium glutamate (MSG). So, those vegetable proteins essentially become addictive flavor enhancers. Gnolls has a great article on how it is done.
Healthy Vegan Processed Foods?
The term “healthy” should never be applied to processed foods. Even when these foods are made without harmful chemicals or additives, they aren’t going to compare to fresh foods like local veggies and whole grains.
But we don’t always have the time to cook fresh foods every day, so those vegan processed foods can be very tempting. If you do have to eat processed foods, then at least follow these guidelines:
1) Don’t make processed foods the main part of the meal. Serve them with tons of veggies and whole grains.
2) Opt for the lesser evil. Choose foods which are free of GMOs and hexane.
The Best Choices for Vegetarian Processed Foods
These brands/products do not use GMOs or hexane for their veggie processed foods.
- Beyond Meat products
- Tofurky products
- Boca organic products
- Field Roast Grain Meat Co.
- Amy’s Organics
- Helen’s Kitchen
- Primm Springs
- Morning Star Organic products
- Trader Joe’s Organic Tofu Burger
- Silk Organic products
Bad Choices for Vegetarian Processed Foods
These brands/products probably use either GMOs or hexane in their veggie processed foods.
- Garden Burger: Garden Vegan, Gourmet, Original, and Sun Dried Tomato
- Trader Joe’s Veg Masala Burger
- Silk non-organic products
Worst Choices for Vegan Processed Foods
These brands probably use both GMOs and hexane in their veggie processed foods.
- Morning Star non-organic products
- Boca non-organic products
- Dr. Praeger’s
- Fantastic World Foods
- Franklin Farms
- Health is Wealth
- Soy Boy
- Spice of Life
- Trader Joe’s veggie products (except those listed above)
- Vegetarian Plus
- Veggie Patch
- Whole Foods veggie products
Shopping Tips for Finding GMO and Hexane-Free Veggie Foods
Obviously, the list of good/bad/ugly foods could be much longer. But most people won’t want to bother memorizing all of the different brands and products of veggie processed foods. Instead, your safest best when shopping is to buy organic products. Both Hexane and GMOs are banned in 100% organic foods. If you can’t afford to buy all-organic, then just go the route which actually is healthy: eat fresh foods instead of that processed crap!