A little hot dog stand in my town advertises on a big bold hand-written sign that they have vegan hotdogs. (They used to sell “veegun” hotdogs; I’m not the one who corrected them, but I’m glad somebody did.) Even though I live in a hippie town where this sort of thing isn’t unusual, it makes me happy. Vegan fare at a hotdog stand gives me hope for the future.
The first “meat analog” was invented by John Harvey Kellogg in 1895 and it definitely wasn’t a hotdog. He ground peanuts into peanut butter as a meat replacement for patients at his Battle Creek, Michigan sanitarium. The product was introduced at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and touted as a health food. Peanut butter made it much easier for Dr. Kellogg’s patients to go vegetarian, and meat analogues continue to ease the transition to meat-free eating for many people.
But, ever since someone wheeled out a cart of veggie meats and cheeses on Oprah (I didn’t see the show myself, so my details on this are a little fuzzy), I’ve been hearing about how this is the wrong way to teach people to be vegan because it’s unhealthy.
I agree that a wagon-load of veggie meats doesn’t make for optimal eating, but does that mean that no one should ever have these foods? Granted, some of the ingredients in popular veggie meats didn’t pop right up out of the ground. They are the result of various degrees of processing. So what? Processed foods—like tofu in Japan, olive oil throughout the Mediterranean, and lime-treated corn tortillas in Mexico—have been part of cultural diets for centuries. Contrary to being harmful, they are sometimes associated with improved health and nutrition.
One popular idea is that vegans who eat processed foods and added fats are the ones most likely to be unhealthy. Therefore, the thinking goes, we need to discourage the use of these foods in order to protect the health of vegans and the image of veganism. But this is based more on a philosophical idea of how vegans should eat than on any empirical evidence. Vegans are most likely to get sick when they refuse to supplement with vitamin B12 and vitamin D or they skimp on calcium and iron—not from eating veggie burgers and pouring a drizzle of olive oil over their salad.
If we base our definition of a healthy vegan diet on extremely restrictive principles and demonize the very foods that help people go (and stay) vegan, it’s hard to imagine that veganism will ever be viewed as mainstream. Vegan diets need to be realistic for kids, college students, people who don’t cook, foodies who like upscale restaurants, and people who eat at fast food restaurants.
This isn’t to say that the vegan norm should be a plant-based version of the typically unhealthy western diet. I’m not advocating that at all. While I want vegan diets to be easy, I also want vegans to be healthy. And healthy vegan diets should be based mostly on whole plant foods. But the all or nothing approach that bans processed foods and added fats isn’t necessary for good health.
We should advocate a way of eating that protects the health of vegans as well as the image and accessibility of veganism. That means keeping the focus on the nutrition factors that really matter, and allowing for the range of vegan diet patterns that can support health.