Meat free food is suddenly all the rage but are vegan sausage rolls REALLY any healthier than the genuine item?
- Celebrities such as Jamie Oliver and Beyonce have signed up for Veganuary
- People try to avoid meat, fish, eggs and dairy products for the month of January
- Bakery chain Greggs has just launched its new range of vegan ‘sausage’ rolls
Stars such as Jamie Oliver, pictured, have publicly backed Veganuary
Record numbers of Britons have signed up to Veganuary – a month of shunning meat, fish, dairy and eggs in favour of a so-called plant-based diet. While six per cent of the population are now thought to spend January avoiding alcohol, almost the same number are going vegan, with the trend backed by social media stars and celebrities including chef Jamie Oliver and singer Beyoncé.
Supermarkets and fast-food chains have also got in on the act, with Sainsbury’s adding 29 new vegan products to its shelves, taking the total to over 100. Waitrose, Tesco and Iceland are stocking ‘fishless’ fingers, meat-free sausages and burgers, and even vegan versions of ready-meals such as lasagne.
Bakery chain Greggs made headlines last week with its new vegan sausage roll, and even Pizza Hut is offering a special vegan pizza this month.
But is it actually healthy to follow the restricted diet longer term? The answer is it depends on what kind of vegan diet you eat.
One 2017 study found that people who stuck to a plant-based diet including lots of wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, pulses and vegetable oils were less likely than average to develop heart disease.
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But those who ate a vegan diet high in sugar and processed foods were actually 32 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with heart disease than meat-eaters. Clearly, making your own vegan meals from scratch is one thing. But do the vast variety of supermarket offerings follow the rules of healthy plant-based eating, or would the meat version be better?
To answer that question, we examined a range of meat, fish, dairy and egg alternatives on the market which we compared nutritionally, and taste-wise, to the ‘real’ thing. The results may make surprising reading for anyone planning a vegan ‘health kick’ this month…
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The new wave of vegan ‘plant-based’ offerings in our supermarkets may, at first glance, seem like healthy options. But most of them are ultra-processed factory products, the polar opposite of real, wholesome food.
The basic mixture of components doesn’t vary hugely, irrespective of whether the label tells you it’s trying to be like dairy, egg, fish, meat or fowl.
They remind me of Dulux paint: the same basic mixture with a little bit of this and that squirted in.
The first ingredient in the majority of these phony concoctions is water. Ample amounts are required to mix in with the food engineer’s toolkit of powders. These include protein powders, such as soy protein and plant ‘concentrate’, and pea and rice protein, extracted from their natural source using high-tech chemical, and biological methods.
The remaining solid bulk of the product is typically made up of chemically altered starches stripped from wheat, maize, potato and rice.
Greggs created headlines last week with its new vegan sausage roll
Although these thicken the mixture, manufacturers still need to add powerful food glues – carrageenan (from seaweed), xanthan (made by fermenting sugars with the bacteria that causes black rot in vegetables), guar (also used to make explosives and in fracking), and cellulose (chemically treated wood pulp).
Another vital ingredient in vegan mock-ups of animal foods is oil from fashionable coconut, rapeseed, sunflower, or some anonymous vegetable blend. It is usually ‘refined’, which means that any health benefits they had have been destroyed by harsh heat and chemical treatment.
Unlike meat, fish, milk and eggs, these elements in the food technologist’s blend don’t taste great. Indeed, several taste actively unpleasant. Soy, for example, is notoriously bitter. To cover this up, synthetic ‘bitterness blockers’ are added – man-made flavourings to copy the animal products, forms of sugar (caramel concentrate, dextrose), salts, yeast extract, and spice extracts.
Manufacturers prefer not to list their colourings as ‘E’ numbers, giving them much nicer-sounding names instead, such as ‘mixed carotenes’ or ‘beetroot extract’. But they’re still added colours.
To be fair, vegan ultra-processed foods present many of the alarming quality and composition issues posed by their animal food-based equivalents. But at least the latter does contain some real food that wasn’t concocted in a science lab.
Snap up these delights if you like, but read the ingredients label first.
That way you’ll see the reality, as well as the marketing hype.
- All nutritional information given below is per portion.
What on earth do the meat-free options taste like?
Waitrose Fishless Fingers
£3.19 for a pack of six, waitrose.com
Calories 211 Fat 12.2g (saturates 1.7g)
Instead of fish, the Fishless Fingers are made with flavoured tofu. We compared them to Essential Waitrose Fish Fingers – both are breaded but the vegan version contains seaweed in the coating. The Fishless Fingers provide as much good quality protein from the tofu as standard fish fingers – and they’re higher in protein
Instead of fish, the Fishless Fingers are made with flavoured tofu. We compared them to Essential Waitrose Fish Fingers – both are breaded but the vegan version contains seaweed in the coating. The Fishless Fingers provide as much good quality protein from the tofu as standard fish fingers, and they’re higher in fibre. But they’re higher too in calories and saturated fat, found naturally in tofu, as well as marginally higher in added salt. White fish is one of the few good sources of iodine, needed for thyroid function, and you won’t get this from the vegan fish finger.
Few things are as comforting as a fishfinger sandwich – and does the Fishless version deliver on that front? Yes. The crispy coating makes a great foil to a couple of slices of soft, chewy sourdough. Tofu is firmer than cod, but the seaweed gives a nice fishy flavour. Smothered in Waitrose Vegan Tartar Sauce they hit the spot.
The Vegan Magnum Classic, pictured, is bite for bite more fattening than the ordinary product
Vegan Magnum Classic
£3.89 for three, ocado.com
NUTRITION Calories234 Fat14g (saturates 9.9g)
Skimmed milk used in the Magnum Classic has been replaced with pea protein in the vegan version to give a creamy texture ice cream. Coconut oil and extra cocoa butter are used in lieu of dairy in the chocolate coating. You’ll get slightly fewer calories and a little less saturated fat – linked with raised cholesterol – in the vegan Magnum, but bite for bite it’s more fattening as it’s a smaller product. Both contain five teaspoons of sugar per stick.
It’s pretty much impossible to know you’re eating vegan ice cream as it’s as sweet and rich (too rich for some of our testers) as the real thing. The vegan chocolate is also super-sweet, but Magnum fans will no doubt enjoy this too.
The Greggs Vegan Sausage Roll, pictured, received a taste-test rating of 4/5
Greggs Vegan Sausage Roll
£1 each, greggs.co.uk
Fat19g (saturates 9.3g)
The sausage meat is replaced with Quorn, a fungus grown in fermentation tanks that’s a good source of protein. It’s higher in hunger-curbing protein than the real sausage version – which perhaps says more about the quality of the meat than anything – but it’s also higher in salt, containing nearly a third of your daily limit. The vegan sausage roll is lower in saturated fat, but still contains nearly half your recommended daily limit as pastry, the common feature in both products, is a big supplier of unhealthy fat.
Meat-eaters in the office declared the vegan sausage roll ‘really good’. The pastry is flaky, the filling satisfyingly firm. It was drier and less oily than the real thing, which could be another positive, depending on your tastes. A triumph.
The M&S Plant Kitchen Lasagne, pictured, is not very good taste wise but is lower in fat
M&S plant kitchen lasagne
£3.50 for 400g for a pack of six, marksandspencer.com
Fat7.6g (saturates 1.2g)
Minced beef has been swapped for soya mince in the vegan version, and the creamy, cheesy pasta sauce is a soya bechamel. This swap gives big calorie savings compared to the standard M&S lasagne al forno – you get 270 less with a portion of the vegan version. The saturated fat is slashed from 19.7g (nearly all of the daily recommended maximum) to 1.2g and the vegan lasagne counts as one of your five a day, too. Levels of protein are lower in the vegan dish, but still good at 21g, just over 40 per cent of your daily recommendation.
Ready-made lasagne is often reminiscent of airline food: cloying and bland, yet over-seasoned. But the Plant Kitchen (quite a misleading label, given how synthetic it tastes) dish is truly dismal. It may be better for you, on paper at least, but the vegan ‘mince’ is rubbery and flavourless while the pasta is gloopy. Wouldn’t a vegetable bake be a nicer option?
VBITES cheatin’ ham style slices
Instead of cured pork, vegan ‘ham’ is made from soy and wheat proteins, starch, water, palm oil and flavourings
£1.89 for 100g ocado.com
Fat14g (saturates 4.8g)
Instead of cured pork, the vegan ‘ham’ is made with soy and wheat proteins, starch, water, palm oil and flavourings. The vegan version has twice as many calories, and more than three times as much saturated fat. It is a little less salty than the meaty ham, but both are high in this blood pressure-raiser. When you’re only having a couple of thin slices in a sandwich, real ham is a better bet overall, especially if you add some Vitamin C-rich watercress or baby spinach, which helps offset damage from the nitrite preservatives in nearly all processed meats.
These tasted like Frazzles crisps – with the same fake bacon flavour. Texture-wise, they were reminiscent of Spam. These would never be mistaken for real ham, but would make a decent vegan BLT sandwich.
We compared vegan ravioli to Waitrose Spinach and ricottta ravioli
Waitrose vegan spinach ravioli
£2.39 for 250g, waitrose.com
Fat4.8g (saturates, 3.8g)
We compared the vegan ravioli to Waitrose spinach and ricotta ravioli. The dairy content found in the normal version is replaced with coconut oil, potato starch and ground sunflower seeds –probably there to mimic a ricotta texture. The calories and saturated fat are slightly lower in the vegan version but saturated fat in dairy products isn’t thought to be linked with heart disease anyway. The standard ravioli is twice as high in protein, which will likely make this version more satiating.
We followed the cooking instructions but found the vegan pasta a little mushy compared to non-vegan versions. The filling was blander but both were enhanced by a dab of butter, a splash of olive oil and some seasoning. Not amazing, but not awful for a quick supper.
In the vegan nuggets, chicken is replaced with a soya protein. When compared to Birds Eye Wholegrain Chicken Nuggets, the closest ‘real’ version, they are almost identical in calories, protein and saturated fat. Despite having a wholegrain coating, the poultry is lower in fibre content, as soya is such a good fibre source. The vegan nuggets are higher in salt
The Vegetarian Butcher No Chicken Nuggets
£2.89 for 180g, waitrose.com
Fat12g (saturates 1.1g)
In the vegan nuggets, chicken is replaced with a soya protein. When compared to Birds Eye Wholegrain Chicken Nuggets, the closest ‘real’ version, they are almost identical in calories, protein and saturated fat. Despite having a wholegrain coating, the poultry is lower in fibre content, as soya is such a good fibre source. The vegan nuggets are higher in salt.
On opening, these smelt just like chicken nuggets but because they had to be shallow-fried to cook, they came out tasting really greasy and very salty. The crispy coating is made from cornflakes and added a nice crunch, and the ‘chicken’ felt similar to the real thing texture-wise. For anyone who’s hankering for a real chicken nugget, these are a good alternative.
The Vegan Mayonnaise is made without eggs, but contains maize starch instead, which may replace the role of eggs in helping keep the watery and oily parts from separating
Hellmann’s Vegan Mayonnaise
£2.15 for 270g, tesco.com
Fat11g (saturates 0.8g)
The Vegan Mayonnaise is made without eggs, but contains maize starch instead, which may replace the role of eggs in helping keep the watery and oily parts from separating. When compared to Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise, both have over 70 per cent rapeseed oil (high in heart-friendly monounsaturated fats), are low in sugar, and have similarly low protein. There’s not much to call nutritionally between these two, but if you’re looking to save calories the vegan mayo doesn’t come in a reduced-fat version.
Side by side you can tell there’s a difference – the Real Mayonnaise is richer and more flavourful, thanks to the egg content. But in a potato salad or sandwich, you’d never know you were eating vegan mayo unless you were told.
The closest cousin to the Giardiniera Vegan is the Pizza Express Margherita: both have a wheat flour base and tomato topping, but the vegan version is topped with dairy-free mozzarella (made with coconut oil, starch and flavouring), and a lot less of it
Pizza Express Giardiniera Vegan Pizza
£5 for 272g, tesco.com
Fat14.8g (saturates 7.8g)
The closest cousin to the Giardiniera Vegan is the Pizza Express Margherita: both have a wheat flour base and tomato topping, but the vegan version is topped with dairy-free mozzarella (made with coconut oil, starch and flavouring), and a lot less of it. This shaves 100 calories. Vegetable toppings (artichoke, spinach, mushroom and onion) mean it’s higher in fibre (5.4g versus 3.6g in the Margherita). The vegan is slightly higher in salt, but still a better choice.
Another one that won over the meat-eaters. A generous amount of fresh, tasty topping and a crispy base combined to make a pizza that was rather moreish. Even the ‘fake’ mozzarella passed muster.
The lamb mince is replaced by lentils and extra vegetables, while rice milk rather than dairy is added to the potato mash topping
The Happy Pear Shepherdless Pie
£4.50 for 400g, waitrose.com
Calories292 Fat9.6g (saturates 1.44g)
The lamb mince is replaced by lentils and extra vegetables, while rice milk rather than dairy is added to the potato mash topping. Counting as at least two of your five a day and with a lower saturated-fat content (seven per cent of your daily limit, compared with nearly 50 per cent in the Waitrose Shepherd’s Pie, which we compared it to), the vegan pie is the health winner, though the low protein is a potential concern given it’s a main meal. Vegans will need to eat something with higher protein content, such as Quorn or tofu, at another meal during the day.
This divided critics – there’s ‘a lot of top, and not a lot of bottom’ which some felt cheated by, but mashed (smashed?) potato fans loved. The flavour was slightly school dinner-ish. Nothing like real shepherd’s pie, either
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