The possibilities are indeed endless when it comes to vegan menu options.
When vegan clients come to you for nutrition advice, do you secretly hope they eat like most people, simply substituting tofu for chicken and soymilk for dairy milk? Or do you yearn for more interesting sessions, in which your clients depict their culinary adventures with exotic fruits, vegetables, and grains that you’re not sure how to pronounce?
However and whatever our vegan clients eat, it is still our job to make an accurate nutrition assessment and provide sound recommendations for optimal nutrient intake. But it’s not easy to keep track of all the new foods geared to vegans. Use this primer to help get you started. Of course, many foods designed for vegans are also perfect for omnivores; after all, the key to a healthy diet is variety.
Beyond the Basic 4
Healthy vegans base their diets around the “basic 4”: whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes. But as we are all pressed for time and seeking quick, healthy meals, vegans are faced with literally thousands of convenience food products, and new ones seem to appear almost daily. Fortunately, labels give us a lot of information on the healthfulness of vegan foods, but we can’t always have labels in front of us when making recommendations.
Move over, Hungry Man and Lean Cuisine. You may have noticed a coup de main of vegan frozen meals in the grocery freezer. They are selling like hotcakes, as they offer convenience, flavor, and nutrition and are free of animal products. At one time, Indian chickpea curry with brown basmati rice could be found only at restaurants (or homemade), and tofu ravioli was virtually unheard of. Today, these meals go from freezer to plate in minutes.
Expect most of your vegan clients to have experimented with frozen vegan waffles, burritos, pastas, burgers, “chicken” patties and nuggets, egg rolls (no egg, of course), “meatballs,” “ribs,” eggplant “parmesan,” curries, soups, rice bowls, wraps, stir-fries, and more. When recommending frozen foods to vegans, it is wise to use the same guidelines as for nonvegan clients: read labels and look for whole foods in ingredient labels listing minimal added sugar, salt, and processed fats. There are a few brands offering several vegan options that are also committed to nutritional quality, such as Amy’s and Dr. Praeger’s. And many “regular” frozen foods, such as some brands of french fries, dumplings, and desserts, just happen to be vegan. Of course, just because a product is vegan does not mean it is necessarily health-supporting.
Veggie burgers—are they healthy? Like everything else, it depends on the ingredients. Last time I went to my local Whole Foods, I counted 27 different frozen veggie burgers. Some are vegan, some are not (the nonvegan ones have eggs, cheese, and/or dairy derivatives). Some are based on grains and vegetables, some on isolated soy protein (designed to mimic beef burgers). They range in calories from under 100 to more than 300 per burger, each with very different nutrient profiles. The healthiest burgers are those with recognizable ingredients such as grains, legumes, and vegetables. The meatlike burgers are acceptable but not a particularly health-supporting choice. The serving method is important; a burger can be slapped between two slices of white bread, or it can be served on a whole grain bun with a big garden salad and a splash of nutritious salad dressing.
The World of Canned Foods
Many people believe that if it comes from a can, it can’t be good for you. This is simply not true, and vegans can benefit tremendously by using certain canned foods. A complaint I often hear from new vegans is the time it takes to cook meals. I say can it! Almost every bean is available by can; just rinse off the salty brine, throw them into your recipe, and serve. Beans are one of the most nutritious foods on the planet, and canned beans are inexpensive, convenient, and versatile.
Canned soups are a bit trickier. There are dozens of vegan canned soups, and not all are good choices. Those relatively low in sodium and made with whole grains, beans, and vegetables are good choices. Canned tomato products, fruits, and vegetables are predominantly vegan, and vegans should get the same recommendations on these products as nonvegans get.
Meals in Minutes
Boxed mixes (eg, couscous, rice, pilafs, chili) and instant “just add water” meals are, for the most part, good choices. Some products have too much added sodium, sugar, and/or preservatives to make them healthy options, so vegans should look for basic types, such as plain couscous, and add their own healthy ingredients such as chopped vegetables, nuts, dried fruits, and herbs.
Plain frozen vegetables are excellent for vegans (and nonvegans alike). Frozen soon after harvesting, they retain most of their nutrient value. They are prewashed, precut, and ready to add to almost any recipe.
Bagged salads and other prepared raw vegetables are a boon to people who like home-cooked meals but are short on time or simply do not enjoy food prepreparation (eg, washing, slicing). They are pricier, but as sales show (ready-to-eat bagged produce grossed $2.8 billion in 2005), people are willing to pay for healthy convenience.1 These products should be encouraged for vegans who want to eat healthy but lack time or desire to cook meals from scratch.
Season to Taste: Condiments for Vegans
Most condiments are vegan. Some notable exceptions are Worcestershire sauce (which contains anchovy extract), curry pastes (which may contain fish sauce or shrimp), and nondairy creamers (some of which contain dairy derivatives). Seasonings are very important to most vegans, and the vast majority are nutritious and serve to improve the palatability of plain vegetables, grains, and legumes. They’re also very convenient: the right bottled sauce can make a meal of simple steamed tofu and vegetables over rice easy and delicious. And some offer a nutritional boost: peanut sauces and tahini (sesame paste)-based sauces are high in protein and essential fats; tomato-based sauces are high in antioxidants and vitamin C; and flax-based dressings are high in omega-3 fats. Others, such as cream substitutes, flavored oils, and stir-fry sauces, may pack in a lot of fat, preservatives, and/or sodium, so they should be used in moderation. Good vegan food can be made delectable with the right seasonings. Healthy vegans focus on garlic, lemon, herbs, spices, peppers, reduced vegetable stocks, flavored vinegars, and fruits.
Soybeans: Dissect and Rebuild
Soy is the mainstay for many vegans. And why not—soybeans are a complete plant protein (containing all essential amino acids), have a mild, pleasant flavor, and are extremely versatile. However, as soy has become pervasive on the supermarket shelves, it’s not always clear which products are health-supporting and which are just junk food with some soy thrown in for marketing purposes. Furthermore, some vegans tend to become overdependent on soy because it is so readily available and serves as a tasty, convenient substitute for animal products such as meats and dairy products. Consuming a few servings of soy per day is acceptable for most healthy vegans, but the diet can be compromised when a variety of healthful plant foods are displaced by an overabundance of soy products. See the sidebar for examples of soy foods and their characteristics.
The Vegan Deli
What’s that you see in the grocer’s refrigerator? Is that vegan bologna? Yes, it is. Look, there’s more: vegan bacon, turkey, salami, chicken roll, ham, and sausage. For newly converted vegans, there’s almost no food that cannot be “veganized,” so their feeling of deprivation (of their old favorites) is minimal. These foods are fine on occasion and are nutritionally superior to their meat counterparts, but vegans can easily overdo these processed foods. A mistake some vegans make is to rely on such “veganized” foods and forget that a healthy vegan diet really is based on whole foods. Vegan cold cuts and the like, consumed in moderation, are appropriate stand-ins and work well in sandwiches made with whole grain bread and plenty of veggies.
Hemp: A Surprising Source of Omega-3s
Most vegans striving for optimal nutrition know that good plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids are few and far between. Some go straight for the source and take supplements with omega-3 fats derived from algae (which is where fish get them), while others have discovered flax seeds and oil, which is the richest plant source. Walnuts, canola oil, soy, and some leafy green vegetables also contain omega-3s, but not in large quantities. More recently, health-conscious vegans have been turning to hemp products. Hemp oil, extracted from the hemp seed, possesses a unique fatty acid profile, high in omega-3 fatty acids. Hemp seeds provide not only essential fats but protein, vitamin E, and trace minerals.
Hemp products don’t stop there: familiarize yourself with hemp milk, cheese, seed “nuts,” protein bars, protein powder, and products with hemp oil, such as salad dressings. For the “soy’d out” vegan, products made with hemp protein can offer tasty variety and superb nutritional value. Of course, vegan consumers need to be good label readers: the presence of hemp in a product does not guarantee that the product is health-supporting; the other ingredients need to be considered as well.
What to Do With…
Many vegans, perhaps because they’ve eliminated so many common foods, seek variety in their diets. Fortunately, there are thousands of plant foods and infinite ways to prepare them. Borrowing from cultures around the world, vegans can experience a culinary adventure each day. Here are just a few vegan foods you may or may not have heard of with some recipe ideas and nutritional highlights. You may just start recommending these superfoods to all your clients!
Intact Whole Grains
In general, intact whole grains are the healthiest way to enjoy whole grains. Brown rice is the most popular, but dozens more are available. Diets rich in intact whole grains contain health advantages due to an abundance of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients; products made from whole grains (such as bread and pasta) lose some or a lot of nutrient value with processing.
Quinoa (KEEN-wah) is a better source of calcium and protein than most other grains and makes an excellent pilaf. To cooked quinoa (1 cup of grain to 2 cups of boiling water cooked for 20 minutes), vegans can add roasted chopped vegetables, nuts, dried fruits, a touch of oil, vinegar, and lemon juice for a tasty pilaf. Quinoa must be rinsed well before cooking to rid the grain of its bitter saponin, a waxy, bitter protective coating.
Kamut (ka-MOOT) is a cousin of wheat, but it is significantly higher in protein. Kamut is not suitable for those on a gluten-free diet but may be acceptable for those allergic to wheat. Add 1 cup of kamut to 3 cups of boiling water for two hours, then mix with cooked beans, garlic, onions, and bell peppers.
Millet is a mild-tasting, nutritious grain that is often used in desserts. Cook 1 cup of millet in 3 cups of boiling water for 35 minutes, and add raisins, shredded coconut, vanilla extract, and a splash of soy milk for a tasty, nutritious treat.
Triticale is a cross between rye and wheat—nuttier than wheat but milder-tasting than rye. It cooks in only 15 minutes, using 2 cups of water for each cup of grain. Try as a breakfast cereal (like oatmeal) or use as a base for vegetable loaves.
Probably the most underused nutritious food in the United States, many vegans have discovered beans’ versatility, flavor, and stick-to-your-ribs goodness. Beans are powerhouses of antioxidants and other phytochemicals, and, of course, are great sources of protein, fiber, and minerals. Most beans are available in cans, so cooking them isn’t necessary. But whether cooked from scratch or scooped out of a can, how does a vegan prepare beans?
Soups: Lentil, black bean, white bean, and mixed bean soups are popular. Any bean can go into a soup. And pureed beans add body to a broth-based soup.
Salads: Chickpea (either whole or pureed, as in hummus), lentil, fava bean, white bean, black bean, or any bean can be the base of a salad. Throw in some finely chopped veggies, a splash of olive oil and fresh lemon juice, and you have a bean salad.
With grains: Black-eyed peas, black beans, kidney beans, and lentils are commonly used in rice dishes, barley pilafs, pasta, and couscous.
Dips: Black bean, white bean, and chickpea dips add flavor and nutrition to raw vegetables and crackers and are a great way to get children to eat beans, if they’re being introduced to new foods.
Mixed dishes: Casseroles, savory pies, stir-fries, and sautes are perfect for featuring beans.
Vegan Dishes From Around the World
What would you think if your client told you he or she ate ful madamas, potato kibbeh, and fattoush for dinner last night? (These are delicious vegan Lebanese dishes.) Many vegans are adventurous and love food from other lands. And because so many cuisines focus on grains, vegetables, beans, nuts, and special seasonings, ethnic vegan foods abound. Some are available as “heat and eat” meals from the health food store (especially Indian and Thai dishes), and many vegan options are found at ethnic restaurants. And, of course, recipes from cookbooks and the Internet offer an endless array of choices.
These foods are usually very nutritious because they revolve around whole foods. But if you’re not sure, ask your client how the dish is made. It’s easy to overdo rich ethnic foods, such as rich desserts, those that are deep fried, contain large amounts of oil or margarine, are made from refined flours, are loaded with salt, or swim in coconut milk, so such dishes are to be reserved for special occasions.
With thousands of vegan food choices available, there are endless ways for vegans to enjoy a health-supporting diet. There are also far too many ways for vegans to impose a nutritional imbalance by depending on just a few foods, overly processed foods, and/or rich foods. Dietitians can help vegans achieve optimal health by putting vegan choices into the proper perspective and encouraging a wide variety of whole, convenience, and prepared foods.
— Dina Aronson, MS, RD, is a nutrition consultant, a freelance writer, and a speaker specializing in dietetics-related technology and vegetarian nutrition.
1. Organic Farming Research Foundation. Available at: http://www.ofrf.org
Soy Products for Vegans
Edamamé are young, whole green soybeans. They’re served most often as an appetizer or vegetable side dish and are usually prepared by boiling for 20 minutes. They are then salted, served in the pod, or shelled. Edamamé are a good source of protein, complex carbohydrates, unsaturated fatty acids, fiber, calcium, and iron. As a whole food, they are a better choice than most soy products made from only parts of the soybean.
Tofu, or bean curd, is the “cheese” of soymilk. Calcium-set firm tofu is a great source of calcium, and all tofu is high in protein and moderate in fat. Tofu’s popularity has exploded; you can now find dozens of preflavored tofu products in the supermarket. Vegans should read labels; some of these products contain a lot of added sugar, sodium, and/or artificial ingredients. Firm tofu is most popularly found in stir-fries but also makes a nice “scramble,” “steak,” or piece of kabob. Soft tofu can be mashed and made into creamy sauces (a great substitute for high-fat, cream-based sauces), dressings, or used as an ingredient in foods such as veggie burgers.
Soy flour is made from roasted soybeans that have been ground into a fine powder. It is available naturally (nothing added or removed), defatted, or with added lecithin. It can be used in recipes for baked goods that call for wheat flour, but no more than one quarter of the flour should be replaced with the soy flour.
Texturized vegetable protein (TVP) is soy flour that is defatted and processed into a chewy meat substitute. It is available in small crumbles and larger chunks and is typically sold dried, canned, or frozen. TVP is used in all sorts of recipes and can stand in for small chunks of meat in casseroles, burritos, stir-fries, savory pies, and pilafs. TVP is high in protein (including the beneficial isoflavones) and minerals and low in fat. As a processed food, it is nutritionally inferior to whole soybeans but not as processed as some other soy products.
Soy lecithin is an ingredient in many processed foods. Extracted from soybean oil, lecithin is used as an emulsifier and stabilizer. Some people take soy lecithin as a supplement, but there’s no scientific proof of benefit.
Miso is made from soybeans and a grain such as rice, plus salt and a mold culture, and then aged in cedar vats for one to three years. Miso adds a mellow, salty flavor to foods such as sauces and pâtés and makes a tasty soup. Many swear by the protective health benefits of a daily bowl of miso soup, but science has yet to find a definite effect.
Soy frozen desserts are delicious and often indiscernible from their dairy counterparts, especially with flavors such as Chocolate Obsession and Pecan Praline. These “soy ice creams” are best used as an occasional treat. Due to their low saturated fat content as compared with real ice cream, they may be slightly healthier, but they are still a high-sugar, high-fat, processed food that is to be enjoyed in small amounts, as desserts should be.
Soy cheese is made from soymilk. Most soy cheeses are not vegan, as they are made with casein (a dairy derivative) to allow the cheese to melt. There are at least four brands of vegan cheese, and all are highly processed. They are best used for the occasional pizza or quesadilla and should not be considered a health-supporting food.
Soy sour cream, cream cheese, and cream should be used in the same way as its dairy counterparts. As they are high in fat (some even have trans fats), low in nutrients, and processed, they are best used in small amounts as flavoring agents and condiments. A vegan can sabotage an otherwise healthy diet by slathering a refined-flour bagel with soy cream cheese for breakfast every day. Vegans should strive for trans fat-free options and use them sparingly.
Okara is a fiber by-product of soymilk manufacturing. It is an ingredient in some cereals and cookies and is the main ingredient in at least one type of vegan burger. It is not a commonly used soy product.
Soymilk is made by soaking, grinding, and straining soybeans. Once remembered as a beany beverage with an unusual aftertaste, modern soymilks are produced with both taste and nutrition in mind. All vegans should be encouraged to use fortified soymilk, with nutrient profiles similar or superior to cow’s milk. A cup of Silk Enhanced, for example, contains 110 calories, 5 grams of fat (almost all unsaturated), 500 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, 7 grams of protein, 350 milligrams of calcium, 120 international units of vitamin D, three micrograms of vitamin B12, and a slew of other nutrients. Fortified soymilk can be used as a beverage or as a milk substitute in just about any recipe.
Soy sauce is a wonderful flavor enhancer, but it is high in sodium. It does not offer significant health benefits and should be used in small amounts for seasoning.
Soy yogurt is made from soymilk and is available in plain, vanilla, and a variety of fruit flavors. Like regular yogurt, it contains live, active cultures and may aid in digestion and restoration of intestinal flora balance. Its nutrition profile is similar and sometimes superior to dairy yogurt (some soy yogurts contain more calcium and vitamin D and less sugar than dairy yogurts). As fruited soy yogurts usually have added sweeteners, vegans should be advised to buy plain soy yogurt and mix with fresh fruit (and/or nuts, dried fruit, seeds, etc if desired).
Whole soybeans, like other beans, are hard and dry; they are much like edamamé, except they are harvested later. Soybeans can be white, yellow, or black and are available dried and canned. Whole soybeans are very nutritious (a great source of essential fats, complex carbohydrates, fiber, and trace minerals) and can be used in chili, sauces, soups, stews, and bean purees.
Soy nuts are whole soybeans that have been roasted. Soy nut butter is crushed soy nuts blended with soy oil and often salted and/or flavored. It has a consistency similar to peanut butter and can be used in place of any nut butter in sandwiches and recipes. Soy nut products are tasty and nutritious but high in fat and should be consumed in moderation.
Tempeh (TEM-pay) is one of the most nutritious soy foods and is made by fermenting whole soybeans along with another grain. Tempeh is high in protein, fiber, B vitamins, and iron. Chewy, slightly sour tempeh absorbs sauces nicely and is perfect for grilling and adding to stir-fries, casseroles, chili, savory pies, and kabobs.
Soy crisps, chips, pretzels, etc are snack foods with some soy protein added. Their somewhat higher protein content may help people feel fuller longer, aiding in weight loss, but in general offer little health benefit over regular crunchy snacks.