Veganism is booming in popularity and it is not hard to work out why. Veganism helps save the planet, it makes you more conscious about your diet, and it is nice to know no animals had to die to satisfy your hunger.
Whether it is for veganuary, or a longer-term lifestyle change, veganism, vegetarianism and flexitarianism are all on the rise.
We have collectively decided that we want to eat less meat. And, on the whole, that’s a good thing.
But when it comes to what we eat instead of meat – things get a little more complicated.
Evidence is mounting that some vegan and vegetarian meat alternatives might not actually be as healthy as we think they are.
Some are so loaded with sodium that they’re positively dangerous, and you might have heard rumours that too many soy-based products can lead to serious health problems.
Greggs has just launched their vegan sausage roll, which is made from Quorn, and many other mainstream brands are wising-up to the growing demand for meat substitutes.
But is it wiser to steer clear of them altogether?
Some experts have criticised vegetarian meat alternatives for containing worrying levels of sodium – which is obviously bad news for your heart and kidneys. You definitely wouldn’t want to be consuming more than the daily recommended levels of salt on a regular basis.
But the major concerns when it comes to meat substitutes is the potential risks associated with eating too many soy-based products.
The worry is that oestrogen-like proteins that are found in soy can mess with your hormones, so much so that it could even cause breast cancer.
In reality though, a number of experts have said that there is no link.
Scientists have found that soy-based foods don’t contain high enough levels of isoflavones to increase the risk of breast cancer.
And soy-based foods, like tofu, are fantastic and vital sources of protein for non-meat-eaters.
‘Tofu is a good source of protein and contains all nine essential amino acids and acts as a valuable source of iron and calcium,’ explains nutritionist and raw chef, Geeta Sidhu-Robb.
‘Soy is high in polysaturated fats, fibre, vitamins and zinc which is beneficial to the immune system. On the whole, if carefully planned, meat alternatives can form the crux of a healthy diet and are far less dense in saturated fats and calorie value than meat. They certainly have benefits over fatty meats.
‘It is, however, vitally important to know whether your body is suited to certain diet changes. For example, tofu is not suited to somebody with kidney or gallbladder stones owing to its high amount of oxalates.’
Inflammatory headlines aside, we know now that soy doesn’t result in an increased risk of breast cancer. In fact, it could actually protect you from some cancers.
But what about Quorn products – like the Gregg’s sausage roll? Do we need to limit how much of this we’re eating?
‘Quorn is made from mycoprotein which is produced by adding oxygen, nitrogen, glucose and minerals to a fungus called Fusarium venenatum,’ explains Geeta.
‘While the fungus is edible, it can have some adverse reactions for some people. This means that excessive Quorn consumption is not always advised.’
Probably the biggest thing to be concerned about where meat-substitutes are concerned are the salt levels. Some of these products contain really high levels of sodium, so you do need to be careful when choosing a product and read all labels carefully.
But Geeta thinks even despite the concerns over sodium, the substitutes are still better for you than meat.
‘One negative often attributed to meat alternatives is the high levels of sodium used to preserve the food and improve the taste, which can be damaging to your kidneys.
‘However this is not to say that genuine meat is not pumped with preservatives, unhealthy oils, additives and salts meaning that, in the balance of things, alternatives are actually healthier than processed meat – it just depends which substitute you opt for.’
And that’s the crux of it. It’s down to choice and being as informed as possible when you go food shopping.
Ultimately, if you’ve made the decision to go vegan or vegetarian, good for you. You’re doing your bit for animal welfare and to help the environment.
If need to bite in to something that looks and feels a bit like meat to help with the transition, then go for it.
And if you still have concerns about nutrition and your health, speak to your GP or a nutritionist.