Last weekend was VegFest at Kensington Olympia in London. I went on Saturday and shopped, ate and listened to various speakers for six entertaining hours. Apparently, around 3999 other people also pitched up to find out more about a vegan lifestyle, and stock up on various goodies.
If you were there and new to all this you would be forgiven for thinking that a vegan diet consists mainly of chocolate, cupcakes and hot dogs: Ms Cupcake was enthusiastically signing copies of her new book, and the queue for the vegan hot dog stand stretched around the hall. There was also a throng of excited looking customers around the vegan bakery… one woman was particularly ecstatic at the thought of eating a Chelsea bun!
A word of caution is needed here, and a confession. Okay, the confession first: I bought a packet of vegan marshmallows. I haven’t eaten a marshmallow since I was eight years old, so I’m not at all convinced I’m even going to like them, but bonfire night is coming and I wanted the big, soft ones you can toast on a stick. It’s probably more about the possibility of finally being able to participate in this November ritual again than what the finished product actually tastes like. Anyway, the lady who made them assured me they will definitely go all gooey and melty, so I duly handed over my fiver. All I need now is an invite…
And so to the caution: vegan diets are not necessarily healthy. In fact, as more and more processed products appear on the market, it becomes less and less necessary for vegans to go anywhere near a vegetable if they don’t want to. The children upstairs were busily making little animals out of vegetables with Madame Zucchini, but I wonder how many of them then toddled off to the hot dog stand for lunch?
Of course, VegFest is a trade show and marketing extravaganza for veg-friendly entrepreneurs, as well as being an opportunity for vegetarians and vegans to stock up on treats it’s generally hard to get your hands on. Just because no-one was selling fruit and vegetables at Vegfest doesn’t mean people aren’t eating them on the other 364 days of the year.
One of the more animated speakers I heard (there were talks happening simultaneously in several rooms and spaces around the venue, so it was impossible to do more than sample what was on offer) was 67 year-old Pat Reeves from the West Midlands, who lifts weights and has been battling cancer with a raw and “living” foods diet for many years. She asked the admittedly small and self-selected audience how many “juiced” and most people put their hands up. Slightly fewer “sprouted”, but she observed that even this represented a significant shift since she started attending these kind of events over twenty years ago. Certainly the raw foods sector was well represented among the stallholders, and the raw food talks seemed well attended. I noted that most of the dehydrated products on offer seemed to contain salt, but generally it seems that people are increasingly interested in how we can create excellent health for ourselves: how we can build strong, resilient bodies with food.
Sadly for me, there isn’t much money to be made with the message: eat the plant, not the product, but from a pure health perspective, this will always remain the case. One interesting example was the BonPom stall. These guys were selling whole cacao pods from Ecuador for £5. Reader, I bought one:
The cacao pod is a thing of beauty, and it contains loads of dark brown, slightly bitter-tasting beans covered in a sweet, white jelly. BonPom were attracting customers to their stall with the offer of a fresh bean – something few people, including me, will have tried before. Most of their products however were derivative products: raw chocolate, cacao butter, dried beans or various exotic powders. The nice man on the stall explained to me that the beans are processed by drying (traditional cocoa powder is made using high heat) then they are separated mechanically into cacao butter and cacao powder, which are later mixed back together in the production of chocolate. Most of the chocolate consumed around the world will also be mixed with sugar and dairy milk, and in this way a naturally health-giving plant is turned into an addictive, obesogenic, artery-clogging time-bomb.
This insight may help explain the confusion around the health-giving properties of chocolate. In 2012 a study was published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood (ADC) looking at the feasability of providing daily dark chocolate to schoolchildren, to prevent them from developing high blood pressure (1). Dr Dean Ornish opens his book The Spectrum with the confession that he indulges in a single piece of high-quality dark chocolate daily. Remember that chocolate contains caffeine and is therefore addictive, so there may be considerable motivation for people to make health claims about it, but that aside it is not unreasonable to think that the raw cacao bean likely contains many thousands of beneficial compounds other than this, including the antioxidants cited in the ADC article. The important point here is that the further away, in processing terms, from the raw cacao bean you get, and the more you dilute its essential nature with unhealthy additions, the less and less healthy it becomes.
Along similar lines, Ellie Bedford gave an interesting talk entitled Where the Wildfoods Are, about how foraging may play a role in raising healthy plant-based children (she has two). She covered what to do with such things as stinging nettles and dandelions, bilberries, peppermint, chamomile and rosehips. Her comment, “why eat baobab when you can have rosehips?” struck a chord with me, and probably further consigned me to the economic slush-pile while Govinda’s Baobab Bites were a sellout.
Foraging is about going out into our rapidly diminishing, but still to be found flanking canals (apparently), countryside and finding your dinner for free. You get the added bonus of sufficient vitamin D this way too, if you roll your sleeves up, which might not be such good news for the man from Opti3Omega, who has recently developed Vitashine, a vegan vitamin D3 supplement derived from lichen grown on a farm in the United States. He shouldn’t worry too much though, as UK children spend much of their time indoors, especially in winter, and in summer are clothed from their neck to their ankles or smothered in suncream to ward off melanomas. This has led to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) bringing out their recent report on vitamin D status in UK children (2), in which they state that: The Department of Health and the Chief Medical Officers recommend a dose of 7-8.5 micrograms (approx 300 units) for ALL children from six months to five years of age.
Vitamin D3 is supposedly more biologically active than the vitamin D2 generally found in vegan supplements (although the RCPCH report states that the BNF and many other authorities regard them as interchangeable), and until Saturday I was of the understanding that it was only found in animal products. I had a similar revelation when I first discovered Opti-3 (and – sorry – it’s competitor product Nuique) some time ago, which is omega 3 oil derived from marine algae. This, I discovered, is where the fish get their omega-3 from in the first place, and it’s grown here in the UK in large vats, then pressed to remove the oil. I wondered if you could just eat the algae, but apparently you would have to eat an awful lot of green sludge. The capsules are a bit pricey, but at least you know there isn’t the potential for heavy metal contamination that there is with fish oils, and no harm has come to the marine environment or its inhabitants in their making. And of course, the more people that buy it, the more the price will come down: basic economics of scale.
So I guess, if you can afford it, do try and support those who are endeavouring to do good things in the world by buying their products. But if you can’t, don’t worry. You may have to roll your sleeves up and grow or forage for some of the nutrition you need, but in general, plant-based diets need be neither expensive nor onorous. Keep things simple, and mostly, just eat the plants.
- Dark chocolate for children’s blood pressure: randomised trial. Eunice K Chan et al. Arch Dis Child 2012;97:637-640.
- Guide for Vitamin D in Childhood. RCPCH. October 2013: http://www.rcpch.ac.uk/system/files/protected/page/vitdguidancedraftspreads%20FINAL%20for%20website.pdf Accessed on 8th October 2013.