Choosing a vegan lifestyle requires thought, attention to detail, and time. While the concept of eating a plant-based diet can be appealing, if you don’t carefully read labels in premade products, you could potentially ingest a variety of additives, preservatives, and other ingredients. Buyer beware: Mystery ingredients may sacrifice the health benefits of a vegan lifestyle. A guiding rule is not to buy products with ingredients you don’t recognize and/or cannot pronounce. And when in doubt, opt for a local, small batch product that was crafted with care.
We’re all familiar with culprits such as aspartame, high fructose corn syrup, and food dyes, but these lesser known additives and preservatives can also be harmful to your health:
Textured vegetable protein: Textured vegetable protein, commonly referred to as TVP, is a flavorless, inexpensive protein made from soy. It can easily be shaped into food products (think nuggets or burgers), but in order to provide flavor, it’s often filled with flavoring, coloring, and even thickening agents.
Hydrolyzed proteins: Similar to MSG, this protein is used to enhance flavor. And like MSG, it will increase your insulin response, convincing you that you can eat more than you should.
Certain oils: If oil is not labeled as being first cold-pressed, then it’s likely refined and may have been produced with chemical solvents. Other oils, such as canola, safflower, and palm oil, can come from genetically modified sources and not be environmentally responsible.
Common offenders: Frozen meals — such as veggie burgers, sausages, chicken, pizzas, or pastas — are usually filled with many of the ingredients listed above and often have minimal nutritional value. Processed snacks, like vegetable chips, are usually not healthy either, as they are made with starches, oils, sugar, and salt. Even vegan desserts should be carefully reviewed, as they can sometimes contain bloated nutrition facts; butter and eggs are replaced with sugars, starches, and oils.
While foods made from fresh produce, whole grains, and well-rounded salads are the most nutritional choices, they may not always be an option. There are “safe” prepared foods, and some are even produced locally.
“The first way to eat healthy is to cook for yourself,” recommends Marie Rama, a chef and cookbook author whose Fresh n Free Six Vegetable Bolognese sauce is available locally and online. “If you think you are going to go into a store and get a sandwich made of jackfruit, that’s great. But if it’s doused with sweet, oily barbecue sauce… Don’t kid yourself — that’s not what you should be eating.”
Rama’s vegan lifestyle was inspired by her husband, who through extensive research and doctor recommendations decided to remove all animal products and oils from his diet in order to regain his health. But because she believes that good food is always “real food,” she was surprised at what she found on store shelves. Her skepticism regarding packaged vegan products became the motivation to make her own sauce — a pure vegetable product with no oil, sugar, or water.
Small-batch cheeses are usually another safe product. While many larger brands load their cheeses with water, starches, and fillers, small-batch cheeses are more nutritionally dense. Chef Wendy Grossman’s cheeses are a perfect example. Available locally and online, Wendy’s Nutty Cheeses are created with a base of soy or cashews, coconut oil, a fermenting ingredient, salt, and a variety of spices — no fillers, starches, or gums.
Grossman began to experiment after being disappointed by a vegan feta she tasted in her restaurant. She conducted research, worked with different nuts and oils, and eventually developed a line of cheeses that includes classic flavors, such as cheddar and blue, as well as unique combinations, like fig and fennel or Mt. St. Helen’s Smoked Salt & ’Shrooms.
“It all comes down to a personal preference as to how pure you want your product,” says Grossman. “What do you want to put in your body? Everyone has their different threshold of what they will or won’t digest. Look at the ingredients and decide if it’s what you want to eat.”