It’s very easy to become overwhelmed walking the grocery aisles. You’re trying to shop healthy choices for you and your family and labels jump out at you from everywhere, each vying for your attention and most importantly your dollar. Words like “natural, vegan, dairy free and cholesterol free” may make you assume that food is nutrient dense and healthy. The majority of the time, it’s a marketing ploy to get you to buy the product. So how do you become a savvy consumer? And make sure you don’t fall victim to the labels? Step one is to avoid the labels when possible. Choosing foods without packaging labels means whole foods like more vegetables and fruits. The second is education. Educating yourself on what these labels actually mean and if they hold any truths. I’d like to discuss the marketing label “VEGAN” to start.
When food is labelled Vegan…
Just because something is vegan, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. I recently read an article which compiled vegan comfort food recipes. Upon reading it, I saw recipes that used ingredients that were completely devoid of nutrients. The first example I am going to use below is not labelled vegan by the company but the treat is known to be vegan.
Black and white cookie sandwiches have prominent shelf space down the cookie aisle. Disclaimer: these cookies are not labelled vegan by the company but in the vegan community, it’s well known they are. According to the ingredient label, these cookies are vegan. There is no actual milk ingredients or eggs used in the product. Instead, the cookies first ingredient is sugar followed by bleached white flour that likely contains trace amounts of glyphosate (aka round up). It’s been stripped of any nutritional value it might have had so it’s then been “enriched” with synthetically derived vitamins. The next ingredient is canola oil. An oil that can encourage inflammation in the body. In addition to this and the sugar already in here, high-fructose-corn-syrup is added for an additional sugar boost. Soy lecithin is used to emulsify the sugars into the “cream filling”. You bet this soy isn’t organic nor is it fermented. Soy is also a very common allergen. On top of all of this, artificial flavour is used. When artificial flavours are used, you have no idea what the “flavour” is actually made from.
Let’s talk candy next. You can find many candies out there with the word “vegan” right on the package. This would mean the candy does not contain any gelatin but rather pectin is used to firm up the candy and give it the gummy texture. Pectin is a soluble fibre found in fruits that when heated with sugar, forms a “jelly” consistency. This is a great find if you are avoiding animal products for personal or religious reasons but you need to have a critical eye when looking at the remainder of the ingredients. These candies are typically still made with high-fructose-corn-syrup, artificial flavours and artificial colours. Artificial colours have been linked to allergic reactions and hyperactivity and are derived from petrochemicals (the same place we get gasoline!) This brand is making a great alternative to traditional candies. While they do have vegan options, they are not made with sugar, artificial colours or flavours. It’s all about making educated choices.
I am sharing information to encourage you to have a critical eye. Yes, many vegan foods are healthy (lentils, nuts, seeds, fruits, veggies, legumes etc) but when vegan is used to encourage your purchase on a packaged item, it’s typically not. Read your ingredient labels or better yet, purchase whole foods.
When food is labelled non-dairy…
There are many big name ice cream companies producing non-dairy frozen desserts now due to consumer demand. These companies choose to prominently display the words “non-dairy” in the hopes the consumer feels this is a better choice. I know for those with a lactose intolerance, you would be looking for this label also. This information is still helpful for you as it will debunk the fact that “non-dairy” doesn’t always mean better for you.
If you have a look at these ingredients, you might be surprised to find that (some brands) are not actually made from milk alternatives like almond or coconut but rather, just sugar! Having a look at the non-dairy ingredients of a very popular German brand, you see water and sugar as the first two ingredients. This is followed by corn syrup, more sugar, rice syrup (more sugar) some sunflower oil, chocolate, a few other ingredients and soy lecithin. One bar has 24g of sugar which is 6 tsp. If you recall my post about Canadians sugar consumption, you’ll know we’re averaging 26 tsp per day and the recommended amount is 8-10 tsp (and ideally 6 tsp). All your added sugar in one day is found in one serving of this non-dairy frozen dessert.
While this dessert does not contain dairy and would be suitable for someone who is vegan or lactose intolerant, it’s easy to see it’s not a healthy choice. You don’t have to avoid ice-creams and non-dairy desserts, you just have to make educated choices. This brand is outstanding in terms of flavour and texture and they use real ingredients that are organic and fair trade. No sugar syrups or colours or artificial flavours are found here.
Keep an eye out for part 2 of this post where I’ll discuss the labels “cholesterol free” and “gluten free”