The McVegan: A bad sign?
by: George Cho, ND
Much excitement has been generated about the new vegan McAloo Tikki burger launched at McDonald’s flagship restaurant in Chicago (1, 2). It is a vegan burger imported from McDonald’s chains in India. This of course follows on the heels of what seems to have been quite a successful launch of the McVegan burger across McDonald’s chains in Scandinavia since late 2017 and early 2018 (3, 4). These reports are a sign that more food industry focus will be on providing plant-based alternatives for a very rapidly growing vegan population across the world including here in North America. In fact, the Economist has declared 2019 the “Year of the Vegan” and Forbes magazine predicts that veganism will go mainstream in 2019 (5, 6).
But is all this good news for the plant-based movement?
I personally believe there needs to be a cautious excitement over these developments. Though I have been plant-based for over a decade and deeply appreciate that more plant-based options mean less cruelty towards animals and better stewardship of our planet, I cannot help but be worried about where all this corporate investment into the movement may lead us when it comes to health.
Processed foods are a major concern
It must be stated very clearly that it is not just animal protein that is the issue in our society today, but also processed foods. Researchers are starting to recognize and write about this (7). Processed foods are likely the major driver of our current obesity epidemic (8, 9, 10). This in turn results in a greatly increased risk in major chronic diseases including, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and Alzheimers.
Processed foods are often completely stripped of their fiber and nutrients, and loaded instead with excess salt, refined sugar, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives (7). These are all compatible with a vegan diet but not with a healthy one.
Consider the following list of vegan foods:
refined boxed cereals
These all have two things in common: they are highly processed and are vegan.
Corporations have a bad track record
This leads to a second point: Corporations do not have a good record when it comes to offering up healthy foods to consumers. Many in the food industry seem to have a knack for messing things up profoundly. They get healthy ingredients and transform them into harmful ones. The transformation of corn into high-fructose corn syrup, and whole grains into fluffy fiberless white bread, muffins, croissants and doughnuts, are examples. Another is Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy peanut butter ice cream. 3 of the top 7 ingredients are: “liquid sugar”, “brown sugar” and “sugar” contributing to a non-dairy vegan product that gives you 21g of sugar in 1/2 a cup, including a lot of saturated fat (11). Even many soy, rice and coconut milks are often high in sugar.
The bottom line is this, what comes out of the food industry often has very little to do with health and more to do with taste. This holds true whether the food is vegan or not.
Concern for science
Another reason for concern with this trend is science. As plenty of science has come out supporting the health benefits of a plant-based diet, there is also a growing body of science that is demonstrating the potentially harmful effects of refined carbs, too much fat, sugar, salt and other ingredients often found in processed foods (7 - 10). Thus, it would be very concerning if people start adopting a vegan diet that has too much processed foods. It would likely be better than a typical western diet but still not very optimal, and sooner or later, the scientific community will start catching onto this and the results of future scientific data may make it seem that plant based eating is unhealthy. This is because researchers have a tendency to study broad categories (example: vegan vs non-vegan) without distinguishing the specific nuances of how people eat.
Also, there is the growing paleo movement to battle with. Though people on paleo diets do consume a lot of animal foods, they also really try to restrict processed foods. My worry is that future scientific studies may discover that vegans consuming a lot of processed foods will be found to have worse cardio-metabolic profiles when scientifically tested against whole-foods paleo counterparts. If such is the case, then people may start promoting animal foods as healthful and throw fully plant-based eating out the window altogether. They’ll throw the baby out with the bathwater. This would be very unfortunate and a travesty.
Don’t underestimate the companies
For those who may be doubtful that the growing mass of vegans would ever become junk and processed foods vegans, I would encourage you to ask yourself: Do you think our mainly whole-foods ancestors would’ve ever dreamed that so many of their descendants would be eating the amount of animal and processed foods like we do today? Corporate America has a successful track record of shaping the way we live our lives, I highly doubt being “vegan” makes one impenetrable to their advances.
Food industry doesn’t get it
For fellow vegans, if you think the food industry is really on our side and “get’s it” consider this response on the McDonalds website to the inquiry: “Will the McVegan come to Canada?”
Hi Taylor, we don't serve veggie burgers at this time but our menu is always evolving to meet the tastes of our customers. We're happy to be able to offer our vegetarian customers some options: all our salads can be ordered without chicken and our World Famous Fries are vegetarian-friendly too. (12)
Yes, McDonalds French fries are vegetarian friendly, but not anywhere near healthy. This is directly from the McDonald’s Canada website. If this is not exhibit A of how dense the food industry is when it comes to health, then I do not know what is. These types of responses coming from companies rushing to make vegan options should put health-conscious plant-based eaters on notice.
WHOLE-foods, plant based
So in closing, we need to encourage people to consume more WHOLE-foods, plant-based. Those in the vegan movement are right to say that animal foods are undesirable, but so are a lot of processed foods. I encourage everyone to move with caution when embracing what comes out of the food industry.
This is not to say that processed foods once in awhile will sabotage one’s health. I’ve also had my fair share of French fries, vegan ice cream and veggie burgers. However, if we are not vigilant, the processed foods can really take over the diet.
I am still convinced that plant-based is the way to go. The health benefits are very compelling (13 - 23). But having read how important whole foods are in the dietary patterns of centenarian populations like the Okinawans, Nicoyans, Sardinians, and the Greeks of Ikaria, I am convinced it is also important to eat whole foods plant-based, not just plant-based.
One of my personal goals in 2019 is to eat more whole-foods and to cut a lot of the processed foods out of my diet. I encourage all to consider this as well.
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