Sun, Jan-31-21, 04:48
Which way will the vegan cookies crumble?
Which way will the vegan cookies crumble?
With Veganuary ending today, now is an ideal time to consider whether having a diet based solely on plant food is the answer to our ethical as well as our health needs
If you are a well-meaning person who would like to eat better for personal and planetary health but you’re confused — welcome to the club. While most people agree that more vegetables and less meat is a good rule of thumb, deciding what to eat each day can be exhausting for ethically minded types.
The end of Veganuary is as good a time as any to assess whether a wholly plant-based diet is a “one size fits all” answer to all our dietary and environmental ills.
According to figures from last year’s Veganuary campaign in the UK, 83 per cent of those taking part were women, while more than 50 per cent of the participants were aged under 35.
While adults can take responsibility for themselves, parents of teenagers who “go vegan” worry about their offspring, because even a carefully planned vegan diet will require supplements of iron, vitamins B12 and D, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iodine and zinc.
In an ideal world, those who follow a plant-based diet would shop at a local farmers’ market for seasonal bounty and stock their pantry with nuts, seeds and pulses, supplemented with a flavour arsenal of nutritional yeast, miso, herbs and spices.
Alice Tevlin is the founder of Rua Food (ruafood.com), which supplies vegan and gluten-free treats to coffee shops such as One Kinda Folk in Ranelagh and to private customers. She quit her banking job and enrolled on Ballymaloe Cookery School’s celebrated 12-week course, followed by stints in the kitchen in Dublin, at Chapter One, and in Melbourne, where she discovered a thriving vegan culture.
How does a trained chef navigate the minefield of eating well? The first surprise is that Tevlin does not follow a strictly vegan diet. “Personally I eat everything, but I try to eat as little meat as possible and personally follow an 80:20 approach [80 per cent vegetables and 20 per cent meat],” she says.
“I don’t like the idea of veganism being put on a pedestal — polar thinking is not productive, as the truth is somewhere in the middle. You have to work harder to make a vegan dish tasty, but it’s a challenge I relish. When I worked in a cookery school, one of the recurring questions from students was, ‘My daughter is vegan, how can I get the right nutrients into her and help her cultivate a positive relationship with food?’
“Cooking for yoga retreats hosted by my friend Lucy Bloom focused my mind. It was clear that people were interested in a plant-based approach; they’d leave the retreat with recipes and follow up with questions when attempting them at home. When I started a meal service for friends, making them four or five meals a week, I made sure to include at least one that was vegan.”
Tevlin says the best piece of advice she can give anyone looking to follow a plant-based diet is to explore recipes from India, Mexico and Thailand, which punch above their weight in terms of flavour.
“Always aim for a colourful plate and not too much beige,” she says. “I recommend quinoa as a great source of protein, and toasting a batch of nuts and seeds once a week to keep in the cupboard. I sprinkle them on everything for extra crunch and protein — they are so much tastier toasted.
“Play around with flavours such as cumin and coriander seeds, garlic, ginger and chilli. Nutritional yeast gives great cheesy flavour and the oomph of umami.I love cooking with tempeh, which can seem quite expensive, but you don’t need lots — a packet should be enough for three or four meals. Even though I eat tofu every now and then, I’m quite dubious about soya products because of the environmental impact of monoculture and forest clearance.”
If you started Veganuary with the best of intentions but found your initial enthusiasm for cooking from scratch waning around Blue Monday — the most depressing day of the year, usually the third Monday of January — you may have found yourself trawling the supermarket shelves after three lentil curries in a row, looking for convenient plant-based products to bung in the microwave and have on the table five minutes later.
Or, perhaps, tired of cooking — and who among us isn’t these days? — you succumbed to the lure of fast food. All of the chains have jumped on the Veganuary bandwagon. You may have eaten one of the fake-meat burgers that look, smell and even “bleed” like meat, layered with vegan “cheese” sandwiched inside a bun slathered with vegan “mayonnaise”, and patted yourself on the back for doing your bit for the planet. And so you might have felt ever so slightly smug.
It sounds obvious, but if you cook from scratch, you know exactly what goes into the food on your plate. That’s not the case when it comes to some of the highly processed plant-based products that are available.
Tevlin doesn’t buy supermarket— ready meals — “I cook from scratch; all ready meals, whether plant-based or not, contain too much sodium,” she says — and does her best to avoid processed food. However, she admits to enjoying the occasional Beyond burger on visits to her favourite fast-food restaurant. “The 80:20 rule is useful here, too. Perfect is worrying,” she says.
This is what goes into a Beyond burger: water, pea protein, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavours, cocoa butter, mung bean protein, methylcellulose, potato starch, apple extract, pomegranate salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithins and, for colour, beet-juice extract .
The competing Impossible burger contains water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil, leghemoglobin (soy), potato protein, natural flavours, yeast extract, salt, soy protein isolate, konjac gum, xanthan gum, vitamins and zinc.
Impossible, which now also produces “pork” and “sausage”, is on a mission to make animal farming obsolete, and to create plant-based substitutes for every animal product in the human diet, including milk and fish.
Unlike Beyond, Impossible uses GM ingredients to fake the texture and taste of meat, using soy leghemoglobin — known as heme — produced by GM yeast.
Food writer Joanna Blythman, long a thorn in the side of “Big Food”, and a tireless investigator into the truth behind food labels, cuts to the chase in a withering analysis of what all of this means. “Water, protein powders, glues, factory flavourings, flavour enhancers, synthetic vitamins — all signifiers of low-grade, ultra-processed food — and a novel ingredient, heme,” she says.
“Reading this list of ingredients, it’s not the sort of product that I and other food-aware people would buy. It’s the very antithesis of local food with a transparent provenance and backstory.
“I’d have absolutely no chance of tracing the origins or uncovering any substantive detail on the production methods behind its components.
“And although the sales pitch for the Impossible burger is that it’s ‘made from simple, plant-based ingredients’, it’s patently the brainchild of a technocratic mindset; one brought to us by food engineers and scientists whose natural environment is the laboratory and the factory — not the kitchen, farm or field — and people who believe that everything nature can do, man can do so much better, and more profitably.”
Chris Elliott is professor of food safety at Queen’s University Belfast, and much of his work is focused on seeking transparency in the food industry, which prefers to keep things opaque.
“The plant-based food revolution is fuelled by big business,” says Elliott. “Some plant-based products are what I would call ‘imposter foods’. They are nutritionally bereft.
“Take, for instance, the Impossible burger. It looks like meat, smells like meat and tastes like meat, but in my view, it’s of negligible nutritional value.
“As best I can, I have tried to investigate what is in some of the highly processed plant-based products that are on our supermarket shelves — it isn’t always easy. As far as I can determine, they comprise mainly soya and bean protein; all the rest is colourants or ‘glue’ to bind everything together.
“The only big health issue is the pea protein. Peas in their natural form are good for you, but they are genetically similar to peanuts. And with peanuts, allergy is a big issue. When peas are very heavily processed using heat extrusion, this changes their molecular structure and makes them more similar to processed peanuts.
“Anecdotally we are hearing about an allergic response to some ‘plant-based’ foods based on pea protein, and the hypothesis is that this is because of the similarity with peanuts.
“When it comes to novel proteins, our bodies have no experience of them. I think we will see more food intolerance, if not full-blown allergy, to pea protein as people eat more of the products that contain it.”
The label of the Beyond burger carries a warning to this effect. But what about the argument that these plant-based processed foods are the answer to feeding the world sustainably? How does that hold up?
“How we feed the world’s population is an issue, and I’m an advocate for food that supports human and planetary health,” says Elliott. “There is bad nutrition in many parts of the world and much of that is in the developed world. Covid has brought this into sharp focus.
“In the UK and other countries where there is widespread bad nutrition — I’m talking less about fat, protein, carbohydrate and calories, and more about micronutrients — more people are dying. We must improve micronutrition and make sure people get fatty acids and vitamins that are essential for health. The majority of these products do not provide these.”
Whatever about the nutritional paucity of many of these products, what about claims that they are more environmentally sustainable?
“In some cases this may be true, but I haven’t been able to find hard data to support those claims,” says Elliott. “We largely survive on 12 or 13 plant-based crops, whereas there used to be hundreds. This monoculture causes massive environmental damage — we have lost most of our insects because of it.
“Lots of our environmental issues are blamed on livestock production, but there are many different ways to raise and look after animals. In the US there are appalling examples in terms of animal welfare and environmental impact, whereas in the UK and Ireland farmers generally try to do it properly, and cattle farming is more grass-based than the feedlots that are common in the US.
“Farming understands it has to change, but it can’t suddenly change to growing bananas and pineapples.”
Elliott points out that there are many statistics on the carbon footprint of livestock farming, a lot of which are based on American farming practices, but says it’s “bunkum” to say that raising cattle is worse for the environment than cars or planes.
“It’s important to understand the distinction between gross carbon and net carbon. All the calculations are based on the methane generated by cows (gross) but don’t take into account and offset the carbon that the animals deposit back into the soil, which would give a smaller net figure,” he says.
Rather than outlaw livestock farming, Elliott suggests it is one of the few industries that can change its carbon footprint from positive to negative by using regenerative farming methods, which he says are mind-blowing in terms of restoring the health of the soil.
Running quietly in parallel to Veganuary was Regenuary, which may offer answers to those who are confused. Unlike Veganuary, Regenuary — founded by the Ethical Butcher organisation — is not backed by the corporate behemoths of Big Food, but supported by farmers and food producers. They believe that regenerative agriculture is more sustainable in every way and a possible solution to fighting greenhouse gases. It also allows consumers to choose carefully so they can eat meat and animal products that promote biodiversity, nutrition and welfare, and even combat the climate crisis, they say.
Instead of pushing a restrictive plant-based diet, Regenuary encourages the sourcing of local and seasonal produce, and of meat farmed using regenerative agriculture. This works with nature to help soil retain carbon emissions by leaving organic matter — plant material and the organisms, such as dung beetles, that feed on it — to thrive, and capture carbon in the atmosphere via photosynthesis.
“In terms of planetary health, it’s our responsibility to understand for ourselves the environmental footprint of the food that we eat and not be told by big corporations,” says Elliott.
To help consumers navigate an opaque food system that makes it difficult for them to understand the environmental impact of foods on the supermarket shelves, Elliott is working on a front-of-packet labelling project that would give products an environmental score, gathering all of the relevant information together.
“It’s important for people to have that environmental information available to them in order to make an informed decision,” he says.
“Personally I am happy to pay more for Fairtrade coffee, and I think an environmental score from one to five will give consumers the opportunity to make decisions based on the environmental impact of the food products they buy.”
How to pick better food
Chris Elliott’s guidelines to better food shopping:
● Buy local
● Buy fresh
● If processed, go for the least amount of processing, such as freezing. Keep processed foods to a minimum
● Be sensible about what you eat. Aim for a balanced diet made up of foods your granny would recognise. Include oily fish for fatty acids, milk and eggs for vitamin D, and vegetables for B vitamins. If you choose a pea-based burger that is missing micronutrients — why? What do you need it for?
● Don’t make the mistake of thinking eating is a religion
Protein from thin air
Finnish company Solar Foods has found a way to produce protein for use in packaged meals, plant-based meat substitutes and cultured meat using electricity and CO2 — literally creating food from air.
Investors have flocked to fund Solein — created in a lab using renewable energy and thus free from the climate and weather limits of agriculture — banking on the carbon-neutral protein’s potential effect on world hunger.
As Jennifer L Schenker writes in business technology website The Innovator: “It is the most sustainable protein ever produced and can be fabricated in the toughest of environmental conditions, such as the desert, the Arctic or possibly even in space.”
Schenker adds: “Solein could also have a huge impact on climate change, as an estimated 20 per cent of global greenhouse-gas food production and land use is caused by global greenhouse-gas emissions and 40 per cent of habitable land is consumed by livestock. Solar claims that its process uses 100 times less water than plant production and up to 500 times less than the production of beef . . . Solein [is] a single-cell protein, using a natural fermentation process similar to that used in the production of yeast or lactic acid bacteria.
“Its amino acid composition compares well with known protein sources such as soybean and beef, the company says. And it has the added advantage of binding CO2 , instead of causing it.”
Solar describes Solein as a complete protein with all the essential amino acids, she writes. “The company says it is light in taste and appearance — and it ‘vanishes into daily meals while simultaneously maintaining its rich nutritional value’.”
The firm says it has developed 20 types of food from Solein and claims it can create a ready-made lasagna, from the pasta, to the sauce and meat, without the consumer knowing how the physics behind it was provided.
It hopes Solein will be in production by the end of 2022 and that it will provide 4 per cent of Finland’s protein requirement, separating food production from agriculture and cattle-raising.
Solar has competitors including Air Protein, a company in Silicon Valley that produces air-based meat.