Who took the “veg” out of vegan?

vegetarian proteinThe vegan diet deserves its health halo.  The Old School vegan diet, that is.  Before isolated soy protein took over the food supply, being a vegan involved cooking whole foods from scratch.  Meals involved beans and grains vegetables and casseroles.  It was more complicated, and required dedication.  No wonder few people were vegan.  The Old School version includes:

  • legumes
  • soy products like tofu
  • nuts
  • grain based foods: cooked grains, noodles, cereals, bread, etc
  • healthy fats from vegetable oils
  • vegetables
  • fruit

It’s strictly a whole-foods, plant-based diet, with no meat, no dairy, no eggs and no fish.  This version of the vegan diet is associated with plenty of health benefits, from weight control to lower risk for many chronic diseases.

Then there’s the 21st century convenience vegan diet.  I’m not even sure I want to to call it vegan.  It’s plant-based, yes, but it’s also highly processed.  The absence of meat and dairy seems less about health and more about opposition to livestock agriculture.  But despite the processing, the word “vegan” gives this stuff a shiny health halo.  Thanks to food processing,  people can indulge their anti-meat and anti-dairy sentiments, without the inconvenience of having to cook beans and rice.  What do they eat instead?

  • Bars. Whether you call them meal replacement or energy or snack bars, soy protein, sweeteners and flavoring are typical ingredients.  They need sweeteners, to mask the taste of the isolated soy protein.  Some bars contain dried fruit and nuts.  Many are fortified with a dusting of vitamins or minerals.  Technically they’re vegan; that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re healthy.  Twizzlers are also vegan.
  • Fake meat.  If your diet is all about avoiding meat, why are you eating fake meat made from processed soy protein and a bunch of additives?
  • Sugar-sweetened plant “milks”.  They’re essentially soft drinks, some with a dusting of vitamins or minerals.  The only exception is soy milk, which has some protein content, but unless you drink it plain, you’re drinking sweeteners.
  • Snack foods: chips, puffs, pretzels.  They may be organic, sprinkled with chia seeds or some health halo nutrient, or made with trendy vegetables.  But they’re still salty and high calorie, and very easy to over-eat.
  • Fake cheese. Think about how much processing goes into transforming a soy bean into something that looks and sort-of tastes like cheese, but without the texture of real cheese.
  • Vegan desserts: they may not have eggs or milk, but they definitely have sugar, fat and empty calories.

And of course, you can eat plenty of mainstream foods that happen to be vegan by default, like bread, cereal, juice, pasta, soft drinks, french fries and crackers.  And there’s plenty of vegan junk food.  Cotton candy is vegan; so is a lot of other candy.  You can make giant sugary lattes with soy milk.  Empty vegan calories are still calories.

So what’s my point?  I’m sad about what being vegan has become.  It can essentially be no different from a meat-eater’s junky processed diet.  Your diet could be nothing but bars, fake hot dogs and fake pizza with soy cheese and soy pepperoni.  Great.  How is that healthier?  Then there’s one of the most bizarre aspects of the modern vegan I’ve seen: avoidance of vegetables.  That’s right, there are plenty of self-professed “vegans” who don’t eat vegetables.

I think we need to put the “veg” back in vegan, and emphasize the Old School vegetables/legumes/grains/nuts version of meatless dining.  For me, isolated soy protein and a bunch of additives isn’t vegan. We need another term for the meat- and dairy-free processed diet.  Perhaps ‘Soy-gan’?

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