When first converting to veganism, the natural tendency is to consume all of the fake meat and cheese products you can shove into your mouth. In 1989 I decided to go vegan, and I consumed every veggie dog, veggie hamburger, and vegan cheese you could imagine. If a product said “made from soy” on the label, I couldn’t resist it. If it was made from seitan (wheat gluten) or pea protein, I fully endorsed it. However, while doing research on my book, The 1st Aisle, I see those products in a different light.
Michael Pollan, author of Food Rules: An Eaters Manual (among other great books), is known for saying, “Don’t eat anything with a label on it.” I have come to agree with that sentiment, although in the world we live in, it’s extremely challenging to do. It’s so convenient to pick up products with a label on them, like condiments, sauces, soft drinks, etcetera, instead of making them from scratch. But, there’s a price to be paid for that convenience.
What’s costly to us is that mass-produced food—plant-based and animal-based—usually has additives in it to enhance its color, taste, texture, smell and extend its shelf life.
Are those additives safe or unsafe?
No one really knows because there have not been long-term studies to prove they are not safe for human consumption, so companies can use them liberally. Sure, we know that many additives are “considered” detrimental to your health, but the government has a GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) designation that applies to many of those additives. That means, if you use them in small amounts during food processing, they are considered safe. Or, if during processing, and otherwise “dangerous” substance is produced from an enzymatic reaction but not “added” as an ingredient, that can be fine also. That said, there are many products that contain substances we shun that are used to mass-produce our food, and there is little uproar about it.
For instance, MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a product that no one wants added to their food, but given the GRAS designation, it may be in your food without a requirement to be put on the label!
We must keep in mind that the GRAS designation allows food processors to create all types of products that could be detrimental to your long-term health. However, those concerns could be mitigated or eliminated by eating fresh produce. There’s no controversy regarding what is in fresh produce, which has been safe for human consumption since we’ve been walking on this earth. Also, fresh produce does not have labels on it.
If we simply play it safe and eat more fresh produce, and reduce what may be “considered” safe, many of our concerns about food additives and metabolic diseases will fade away.