From lentil- and chickpea-pastas and cauliflower-based everything to alternative milks (so. many. alt. milks.), it’s clear that plant-based eating is more than just a trend; it’s here for good. After a long-held belief that meat should be the focus of their meals, Americans are leaning in to the scientific research that repeatedly finds that a plant-forward diet is the healthiest way to eat and giving veggies more real estate on their plates.
Of course brands have taken notice and for the most part, that’s awesome. There are more vegan products on the market than ever, making it easier for consumers to up their plant-consumption, even if they don’t want to (or can’t) eat all vegan all the time. However, dietitians have a PSA to healthy eaters: not all foods marketed as “vegan” or “plant-based” are legitimately healthy. “Companies often use terms that cast a health halo around their product,” registered dietitian Debbie Petitpain, RDN says. When it comes to food confusion, you could say using “vegan” and “plant-based” is the new “natural.”
While the term vegan is pretty straightforward (indicating that animals weren’t used to make the product at all), registered dietitian Amy Kimberlain, RD, CDE, an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics media spokesperson, says that “plant-based” is more nebulous, which adds to the confusion when shopping for healthy foods. “[Different people] have different definitions of what it means,” she says, adding that it’s typically an umbrella term used for an eating plan that focuses primarily on plants. There are also no official regulations for brands when it comes to using the phrase “plant-based,” she adds. (Get on it, FDA!)
Petitpain agrees. “While it’s a safe bet the [plant-based] product would contain ingredients such as vegetables, fruits, grains or nuts, there’s no telling how much of each is in the product or how processed those ingredients are. And there’s no telling if other, non-plant-based foods are also present.”
Whether a food product is labeled as “plant-based” or “vegan,” Kimberlain emphasizes that they’re not always healthy. “Highly processed foods like chips, crackers, and cookies are technically plant-based [and vegan], but just because they’re plant-based shouldn’t be assumed to be healthy,” she says. And yes, that goes for plant-based “nice cream” and alt-meat burgers, too. At the end of the day, these products are generally still high in sugar, saturated fats, and other not-so-healthy ingredients—and thus should be enjoyed in moderation just like with the non-vegan versions of these foods.
When it comes to giving a vegan product the verdict on if it’s actually good for you or not, both Kimberlain and Petitpain offer the tried-and-true advice you’re surely heard before: ignore the marketing terms on the front of the packaging, and check out the ingredients list and nutrition panel on the back.
“Look for low levels of saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium,” Kimberlain says. “These key nutrition label components are much better indicators of a food’s health than whether or not it is vegetarian or plant-based. Typically, fewer ingredients is generally preferable; for example, look for pasta that contains nothing but 100 percent whole grain wheat.”
There are specific ingredients often used in vegan foods that Kimberlain says people should consume in moderation. “Coconut oil is a source of saturated fat, a nutrient that is associated with cardiovascular disease and one we consume too much of,” she says as an example.
Certain types of vegan products are more likely to trick healthy eaters, too. While most people know even vegan candy isn’t exactly good for you, vegan cheeses, vegan meats, and plant-based milks can sometimes have lengthy ingredients lists full of processed fillers, making them less healthy than the food they’re meant to replace. This is why both Kimberlain and Petitpain say to go with vegan products that have short ingredients list consisting of foods you recognize—preferably plants, since that’s the goal here.
Here a registered dietitian share the healthiest vegan and vegetarian foods:
The TL;DR takeaway from all this is that yes, it’s awesome that there are more vegan products at the grocery store than ever before—plant-forward eating FTW! But not all vegan products are created equal. Being a smart, healthy shopper comes down to advice you’ve likely heard before: check out the ingredients, read the nutrition panel, and decide accordingly.