More junk journalism

| Post published on February 3, 2020
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A huge body of scientific evidence supports plant-based diets, for both human health and environmental benefits. Yet one article after another, on the BBC Future website, uses flawed studies, often funded by the meat and dairy industries, to draw ill-conceived conclusions while ignoring the wealth of evidence showing how a vegan diet is good for your health and the planet. Such poor journalism is misleading and dangerous.

The latest, by William Park, focusses on vegan junk food and how nutritionally void it is. I don’t remember anyone claiming that vegan junk food was healthy, but I do disagree with Park’s argument that vegan junk food is worse than its meaty cousin. He seems to be hell-bent on planting seeds of doubt in the minds of those considering making the move towards veganism.

Park starts with tofu (not a well-known junk food) and says we’re no good at converting ALA, the short-chain omega-3 fat it contains, into the longer chain omega-3s EPA and DHA, found in fish and to a lesser extent in some meats. It’s a curious approach – nuts and seeds (especially walnuts and flaxseed oil) are a much richer source of ALA and as millions of people all over the world don’t eat fish (or meat) we must be managing somehow. In fact, research suggests that vegans might even have a better rate of conversion – the more you need the more you get.

“Plant-based protein sources usually lack at least one of the nine essential amino acids” says Park. This is incorrect, research published in the journal Nutrients says that all plant foods contain all 20 amino acids, including the nine essential ones and that a more accurate statement would be that the amino acid profile may be more varied in some plant foods, but that this is not a problem if you eat a mixed diet providing enough energy. The question of any amino acid deficiency, they say, has been substantially overstated and that the term ‘complete protein’ is misleading. It’s time to stop asking vegans where we get our protein!

For a comparison of the protein content of meat-based junk foods and their meat-free equivalents, see the table here. However, the best plant sources include pulses (peas, beans and lentils), nuts, seeds and wholegrains (wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta and brown rice).

“Another discrepancy between the quality of animal- and plant-based foods is in their iron content” says Park, but it’s a myth that you need meat for iron. Haem iron, from meat, is more easily absorbed than non-haem iron from plant foods, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Too much iron can be harmful, for example, leading to the production of free radicals and N-nitroso compounds linked to certain cancers. A varied vegan diet can provide as much healthy iron as you need – according to Public Health England’s food database, steamed baby spinach contains more iron per gram than a rump steak from a steakhouse!

Park uses a review of studies from 10 countries to conclude that vegetarians and vegans have lower levels of iron than meat-eaters. However, most of the studies included compared very low numbers of individuals, some even failed to include meat-eaters in their analysis. Low iron levels are not uncommon, especially among women, regardless of diet, so it is unclear how significant the results of this collection of small studies from around the world are.

Consistently overlooked in these types of articles is the 2016 EPIC Oxford Study, one of the largest studies of UK vegetarians and vegans ever undertaken, comparing the diets of over 18,000 meat-eaters, 4,500 fish-eaters, 6,600 vegetarians and 800 vegans. They found vegans had the highest iron intake, followed by vegetarians then fish-eaters and with meat-eaters coming in last.

The article contains some useful advice from dieticians among the misinformation, for example how vitamin C can help increase iron absorption. But the net effect is confusion.

Park latches onto how some vegan junk foods contain relatively high levels of salt and saturated fat, no kidding Sherlock! Like a cheeseburger or a pepperoni pizza doesn’t.

Finally, our old friend B12 is rolled in, Park warns us that there’s a genetic condition that can hinder the absorption of this vitamin. The fact is, B12 is better-absorbed from fortified plant foods and supplements in which it isn’t attached to animal protein. This is why the National Institutes of Health in the US advises all people over 50 to take a supplement or eat fortified foods – it’s easier to absorb.

Junk foods have been around for decades – burgers, hot dogs and fries… No one thinks they’re healthy, vegan or otherwise! These types of junk food tend to contain unhealthy levels of saturated fat and salt. However, at least the vegan versions are not linked to cancer in the same way as the meaty ones! Come on Aunty – get your facts straight!

About the author
Dr. Justine Butler
I joined Viva! as a health campaigner in 2005 after graduating from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology. My scientific training helped me research and write numerous reports, guides and fact sheets for Viva! including Meat the Truth, Fish-Free for Life, One in Nine (breast cancer and diet) and the substantial report on the detrimental health effects of consuming dairy; White Lies. This accompanied Viva!’s report The Dark Side of Dairy which spelt out the inherent cruelty of dairy farming. We were the first UK group to take on the dairy industry in this way, and many of our supporters go vegan after reading these reports.

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