It’s cynical greed that gets me. Turn on primetime TV or allow ads to slide across YouTube, and every food processor and retailer seems to be taking advantage of the Veganuary movement, pushing their products as healthy and virtuous.
Timing, of course, is everything. Next Monday, the third of January, has been dubbed Blue Monday because it’s supposed to be when we’re down, cold, broke, and mired in broken resolutions. While we feel most vulnerable, the food industry does its best to turn our guilt into profit. “Join the Goodness Movement” coaxes one, advocating a swap of grilled chicken for something called “plant chicken goujons BBQ” made with rehydrated soy and wheat.
I have nothing against veganism or Veganuary. Ditching animal products completely isn’t for me, but few people would disagree that as a nation we should be eating less meat and more vegetables. Although there are compelling arguments that pasture-raised, free-range meat can have positive effects on the planet, particularly in the UK where it can go hand-in-hand with the less drastic versions of rewilding, avoiding meat Intensive farming makes sense for the damage it does to the environment as well as the animal welfare issues involved. Experimenting with meatless meals is not a bad plan.
The problem is that while it is possible to have a healthy vegan diet (with care and vitamin B12 supplements), many of these vegan meat substitutes or meat analogues, as they are known in the industry, are not healthy at all. They fall into the category of ultra-processed foods, first identified by Brazilian academics under the NOVA classification. UPFs are now widely recognized by food experts as unhealthy and possibly addictive, blamed for the rising incidence of obesity and ill health around the world.
NOVA divides all foods into four categories. “Unprocessed or minimally processed foods” refers to raw ingredients such as fruits, vegetables and meat. The second category, culinary ingredients, covers the tastes of flour and oil, while the third, processed foods, includes cheese, for example tofu or bread if it is made only from flour, yeast, salt and water.
The final category is ultra-processed foods, products that typically come in packaging and include ingredients and processes you wouldn’t use at home, according to NOVA, “especially flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to mimic sensory properties”. qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to conceal undesirable qualities of the final product”. In other words, products – I hesitate to call them food – that are manipulated to deceive us, to make the ingredients seem more palatable, or more sustainable, or somehow better than they they actually aren’t.
While a grilled chicken breast would count as minimally processed, or possibly “processed” if you include a bit of salt and oil, these “vegan BBQ chicken gudgeons” are unmistakably ultra-processed, containing over 30 ingredients. , including methylcellulose, maltodextrin and dried glucose. Syrup Not so appetizing, but it’s not just a matter of taste UPFs don’t just fool our palates, they also mess with our bodies, triggering hormones that encourage us to overeat.
Yet somehow the food industry is determined to sell us the message that vegan products are inherently wholesome and wholesome. Even the word vegan has been tossed aside, likely because it has connotations of abstinence and dinners that taste like hair shirts. Nowadays, everything revolves around the “plant”. Tesco has named its vegan range Plant Chef, M&S has gone for Plant Kitchen, Morrisons has Plant Revolution, Waitrose is called PlantLife. Asda chose Plant Based. The other day I came across a chutney proudly labeled “plant-based.” Yes, chutney, as if chutney was never made exclusively from plants. And then ? Vegetable jam? A vegetable apple?
This lovely word “plant” has a whiff of nature, countryside, health, fresh air, natural foliage. Sainsbury’s Plant Pioneers range even sports a cheeky green leaf that stands out from the logo, although there’s nothing green about Cumberland’s beige shroomdogs or oddly orange Vacon Smokey rashers, both of which contain more a dozen ingredients. Yes, some of the ingredients are derived from plants, but aside from the herbs in the mushrooms, you’d have to go far back to find many green leaves. The factory as in the manufacturing plant looks like a closer association.
The vegan movement is multiplying television campaigns. A new Viva ad, which Plant Based News says is set to air on Channel 4 just before Valentine’s Day, shows a cute couple petting their dog before ordering a takeaway delivery of pulled pork. The ‘Just Meat’ (geddit??) delivery man arrives with a live piglet and a cleaver, while the dog whimpers. Shocking, sure, and you could say a reminder of where our meat comes from is long overdue (though this cute piglet looked way below slaughter weight to me). But the length to which we delude ourselves about food in the supermarket refrigerated cabinet and how it gets there is not limited to meat. A movie showing the industrialized process that goes into making the textured plant protein in vegan sausages or the culture vats of citric acid (the acidity regulator in many processed foods) would be just as bad for the stomach.
Despite all my apprehensions, these vegan products have a place, but not as healthy foods. If chicken nuggets or seafood sticks or cheap sausages are your favorite thing (no judgment here: I have a thing for Caramac bars, the essence of ersatz confectionery), then it’s definitely worth worth reaching for the fake bacon and the got-no-beef beef. Many of them are incredibly accurate copies of meat-based junk food, which means there’s no earthly reason for an animal to be raised in cramped conditions to twirl the turkey when a indistinguishable product can be made from soy protein.
But please don’t kid yourself that this is healthy food. It’s junk. While health experts urge us to eat more vegetables, that’s not what they mean. They mean real vegetables, you know, cabbage, carrots and cauliflower. The herbal kind.
Good Vegan Guys
Vegan food doesn’t have to be junk food. Tofu and its relatives have a long and honorable gastronomic history, so don’t confuse them with the ultra-processed brigade; they fall into the category of processed products like homemade bread, cheese and vegetable soup. Most producers in the UK, such as Cauldron and Rude Health, source their soy from Europe to avoid the environmental problems associated with rainforest destruction, unlike some imported soy-based pet foods. Check with suppliers individually – nothing like an email from a customer to keep companies on their toes about sourcing. Here are the meatless alternatives I didn’t have beef with.
Tofu: Made from soy milk, which is produced by grinding water and soybeans together. From there, it is made in the same way as dairy cheese, by coagulating the milk and draining the curds to make silken, soft, firm tofu rather than soft, hard cheese. Sweet, but absorbs flavors like soy sauce and ginger well. The texture is more like cheese than meat.
Tempeh: An Indonesian specialty made from soybeans that are fermented with a fungus culture that binds the seeds together into a cake. It has a chewy, gritty texture and an earthy, nutty flavor that isn’t for everyone, but it’s “meatier” than tofu.
Seitan: The source of countless vegan “Satan” puns, seitan is made from wheat rather than soy. In effect, a wheat paste is washed to remove the starch, leaving a mass of starch strands that are pressed together; there are tutorials online if you feel like trying it out at home. With a delicately fibrous texture that absorbs flavors well, seitan is an incredibly compelling chicken breast substitute and is sometimes known as faux duck.