Many people look to switch to a vegan diet in the hopes of cleaning up their diet and eating healthier. However, with the large range of convenience foods, and meat substitutes, many vegan foods are not healthy. Eating whole foods is always best, but what are the bad ingredients you should watch out for in vegan products? Below we look at some of the common ingredients in plant-based foods and what exactly they are.
Canola oil is often marketed as a health food with high omega-3. However, canola oil is highly modified and processed as is sunflower oil. The production process includes bleaching, heating to high temperatures, and adding additional chemicals. After this process, the oil no longer contains any omega-3 which was the original draw card of canola. Studies show that cancer cells feed on the oleic acid found in refined canola oil, favoring tumor progression. The most common plant-based products containing refined canola oil are Beyond Burgers and Beyond Ground.
Also known as E171, titanium dioxide is a white colorant additive. Quite commonly, this is found in plant-based chicken products, however, is also in paint and cosmetics. The most popular plant-based products that contain this are Beyond Chicken, Gardein Chick’n, and Tofurky Chick’n. While the amount of titanium dioxide is small, it is a nanoparticle. This means that it can slip past the natural protective barriers of the human body, and accumulate in the liver, lungs, and other organs. Studies do not show the long-term effects of consuming titanium oxide, however, early studies have caused the European Commission to ban the use of it as a food additive.
Also known as E319, tertiary butyl-hydroquinone is a synthetic food preservative that prevents discoloration and extends shelf life. It is also commonly found in varnish and paints. The FDA limits the amount of tertiary butyl-hydroquinone to less than 0.2% in any food product. However, studies show that this does can impair the primary and memory immune response to influenza. This in turn weakens the immune system and can also decrease the efficacy of the influenza vaccine. One of the most popular plant-based products containing tertiary butyl-hydroquinone is Morning Star Veggie Bacon.
Also known as Red #3 or E127, erythrosine is a color additive. It is primarily used to make plant-based meats look more meat-like by adding that pinkish-red hue. What is most shocking about erythrosine is that the FDA banned its use in cosmetics over 30 years ago due to it causing cancer during animal trials. Further studies have since shown that erythrosine can cause DNA structural damage to human liver cells, however, it is still a legal additive. The most popular products containing erythrosine are Morning Star Veggie Bacon, Cedar Lake Meatless Jumbo Frank, and Linda Big Franks.
While hexane is not a direct ingredient in vegan foods, a popular ingredient is made using it. Many plant-based meat alternatives are made from soy protein isolates and concentrates. To create this ingredient, manufacturers must separate the soy protein from the soy fat. However, to do this effectively manufacturers will soak soybean flakes in hexane which is a byproduct of gasoline refining. Direct contact with hexane causes skin irritation, blisters, and a chance of vision loss. As hexane is a processing agent it does not need to be listed on food labels. The only way to avoid hexane is by buying products that are USDA Certified Organic, as these products are prohibited from using neurotoxic and petrochemicals during any stage of processing.
Also known as E407, carrageenan is a vegan thickening and moisturizing agent. Carrageenan is extracted from red seaweed which sounds like it should be healthy for you. However, the use of carrageenan is tied to gastrointestinal effects, intestinal inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome, and colitis. Additional studies show an increased likelihood of colon cancer in animal and cell tests with regular ingestion. Many studies show that small amounts may be fine to consume but there are currently no regulations surrounding carrageenan. As a popular thickening agent, carrageenan is found in most plant-based products, especially vegan yogurts and dairy products.
Eating a vegan diet can offer various health benefits, however, eating a diet of highly processed foods can be bad for your overall health. Avoid products that also have “gums” and “natural flavors” as these can hide bad ingredients.
Remember, just because something is plant-based, it doesn’t mean it is good for you. Aim to eat whole foods whenever you can, and buy products that are USDA Certified Organic or have easily recognizable ingredients.