Is the vegan label pulling a fast one on your health?

While on an enforced a two-week break from running to recover from the Milton Keynes Marathon, I had the chance to catch up on some work. Or so I thought, because like all parents, the moment you have a little morsel of time is when it is magically taken away by some other priority. Usually involving children or animals. The other day, my work was interrupted by one of our cats who proudly announced herself to me by depositing an enormous pigeon by my desk which she had brought into the house. How she managed to fit it through the cat flap whilst still clenched in her locked jaws was beyond comprehension but it was very much alive and furious. I spent the next while trying to herald the pigeon outside the house while wrestling my cat away from it as she persistently pounced like a lion. Unfortunately, my frantic calls for some help from my children were only answered by our second cat who eagerly joined in with the chase.

Another half hour later and I had only just separated fowl from felines. The very dishevelled looking pigeon took advantage of the temporary break in the battle and finally made it outside the door. With the cats safely inside the house, the pigeon eventually reached the relative safety of a high tree branch. As I left the two cats pining and pressing their noses against the window while they tracked the bird’s next moves, I assessed the damage around me. There was chaos and feathers everywhere in sight and my little window of time disappeared into thin air.

Not all interruptions to a bit of free time are as dramatic or as unwelcome but the effect is just the same. Suddenly, your best laid plans go up in smoke and you are left scrambling around in a game of catch-up. Trying to make short-cuts to get everything done becomes the order of the day and this is never so true as when it comes to cooking. After all, you still have to eat. But late meals and rumbling tummies are the perfect ingredients for a massive argument.

It is no wonder that many of us rely on fast foods and readymade meals to save the day and stop a meltdown in its tracks. Which isn’t to say that when we choose these foods, we don’t know that they’re not good for our health. Even if you tried to convince yourself in the past that it’s not all that bad, the sheer amount of recent media coverage highlighting the health implications of eating a diet rich in ultra-processed foods means that it is now undeniable. But we are not likely to have any of this in mind when we’re surrounded by cranky family members who are equally hungry, irate and primed to engage in warfare over who finished the milk. The wide availability and palatability of ultra-processed fast food and readymade meals makes them irresistible. Sometimes, it simply seems like a far better option than trying to rustle up something fast.

And to be honest, nutritionally-speaking, eating ultra-processed food on occasion is not going to make a massive negative impact on your health. The problems start when eating ultra-processed foods ‘on occasion’ is no longer a rare treat or eaten in an Old Mother Hubbard bare cupboard emergency. And like a slippery slope, eating these foods turns into a weekly event and then creeps into a new weekend routine which your family now comes to expect. Before long, you’ve adopted more and more ultra-processed foodstuffs into your daily diet that contain a long list of ingredients that you do not recognise let alone know how to pronounce. And the more entrenched these ultra-processed foods become your diet’s norm, the less space you have left to fit in the healthy, nutritious foods your body really needs to grow, stay well and live for longer.  

Sometimes this happens almost by stealth, when ultra-processed fast foods and readymade meals are disguised and marketed as being healthier options for when time is short. But when it comes to food manufacturers, the definition of ‘healthy’ follows market forces and can have more to do with food trends and popular ideas around health than whether a product is actually nutritious. Labels such as fat-free, gluten-free, organic and vegetarian have all been used by companies to help sell readymade ‘healthy’ foods but it is often far from the truth. Now the latest trend that manufacturers have tapped into is the growing rise of veganism and the popular belief that by definition, veganism and vegan foods are healthy. Which is not to say that following a vegan diet is unhealthy. However, the key to eating any healthy diet, vegan or otherwise, is to ensure that it is balanced and provides the right nutrition for your body’s needs.

The other driver of the vegan trend is a greater awareness among the public of the environmental impact of our food production. Although it may be difficult to estimate how many people in the UK now eat an exclusively vegan diet, one thing is for certain. As more consumers are starting to reduce their meat intake and relying more on a plant-based diet, the number of people trying out veganism is increasing.  

Manufacturers have responded by launching an increasing number of vegan products with the UK doubling the number of new products last year. Some would argue that the growing number of new vegan foodstuffs including fast foods and ready-made meals is a very positive thing and only promotes inclusivity in a largely meat-eating world. After all, today it is far easier to follow a vegan diet while out and about when sharing meals with family and friends rather than having to pull out a tatty Tupperware from your bag. The new vegan products also make it less of a challenge for non-vegans to cater for guests rather than scrambling around for suitable recipes.

But just because there is a wider variety of vegan foods out there doesn’t mean they are all healthy. An ultra-processed fast food or readymade meal that has a big vegan label slapped onto it doesn’t make it any less ultra-processed or nutritious. Deep fried faux ‘fish’ is still deep fried. But despite this, the record sales of vegan convenience foods say that manufacturers are onto a winner.    

Greggs’ vegan sausage rolls have been so popular that they have struggled to keep up with the demand and were forced to swiftly increase their production. In fact, sales have been so high that their vegan sausage rolls have helped to increase Greggs’ profits at a time when many small businesses are folding. Clearly, sausage rolls could never be mistaken for something that is very healthy and Greggs is not promoting their vegan versions as such. But I wonder how many consumers realise that a food traffic light label of Greggs’ vegan sausage rolls would carry a big red for fat, sat fat and salt. Are all vegans junk food junkies? Or does the vegan label increasing sales to everyone?

This week, KFC is trialling their first ever vegan chicken burger, ‘The Imposter’ because according to their press release, vegans have been denied the ‘incredible taste of the Colonial’s secret recipe’ until now. Given their name, it’s hardly surprising that the menu at KFC had not previously included any vegan (or vegetarian) mains. In fact, the only vegan options were the sides of fries, beans, house salad and corn on the cob (without butter). Therefore, the introduction of a vegan burger will immediately offer more choices to both vegans and vegetarians. But I suspect that The Imposter is more about helping KFC tap into this emerging group of consumers.

The Imposter burger is selling so well that reportedly, it’s causing long delays for customers who aren’t used to having to wait around for their fast food. I may be wrong but I cannot imagine that the demand is due to a massive pilgrimage of vegans and vegetarians flocking to KFC to take a bite of the Colonial’s secret recipe. Surely there must be a wider group of customers who have also bought into the vegan label. But do they know that The Imposter not only contains almost half of the recommended daily limit of salt intake but has the same amount of fat with a little over half the protein of KFC’s regular chicken burger? It certainly hasn’t put consumers off. Only time will tell if the trial is a success and KFC will roll out The Imposter UK-wide to satisfy the vegan masses.

The list of new ultra-processed vegan foods goes on but who knows for how long this trend will stick or if the public will wise up to vegan labelling trickery. With recent media interest into the effect our diet has on the climate crisis and the need to look for more sustainable ways of eating, perhaps there may be yet another shift. As much as I would like to hope that it will be a trend against all types of ultra-processed foods, I have my doubts. Because ultimately, whether your diet is gluten-free, organic, vegan or meat & 2 veg, for many families the central problem still remains the same. How to make short-cuts and feed everybody quickly when your day has not gone according to plan.

Without having a one-size-fits-all solution for families I can at least share what I do in a meal emergency. Although I do not expect a repeat performance of my cat’s adventure with the pigeon, as a parent of 3 I know never to count on a day going as planned and always having enough time to cook. I have learned (the hard way) that prevention is the key to stopping a hunger attack by my family and so I try to keep a stock of some emergency supplies. In other words, my answer to what to cook quickly almost always lies in the freezer and in the cupboards. It usually comes in the shape of a stir-fry never attempted before, a frittata like no other or a beans bonanza on toast. Admittedly, it doesn’t always turn out as expected and the taste combination can be something of a surprise. After all, I am not a miracle worker. But it has saved the day and my sanity many times over and means that far from becoming a go-to meal, ultra-processed foods still sit firmly in position as the ultimate last resort of a meal emergency.

Speaking of which, here is the latest creation made in a hurry but one that will definitely be repeated, a Mexican stir-fry of sorts. It’s even vegan (but you’ll need to serve it with a substitute for sour cream).

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