25 Years of Vegetarian Food and Nutrition

Where We've Come From and Where We're Going Now

By Reed Mangels, PhD, RD

Twenty−five years ago it could be challenging to be a vegetarian or a vegan. I remember packing a suitcase with cartons of soymilk to visit my parents in northern Florida. Soymilk simply wasn't available in the stores in their area, nor was tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers, tofu hot dogs, or non-dairy frozen desserts. Many brands of cookies and crackers were made with lard or beef tallow. Lots of restaurants either didn't have vegetarian options, or the only vegetarian option was an iceberg lettuce salad.

Times have certainly changed. Now at the supermarket near my parents' house, I have my choice of several brands of tofu and veggie burgers. Most commercial cookies and crackers don't contain lard or beef tallow (and may even be free of hydrogenated fats). Many restaurants offer several vegetarian entrées, and most servers no longer suggest fish when you say you're a vegetarian.

So, yes, it is easier to be a vegetarian or a vegan today. Every time that I dash in with little time to cook, I am thankful for all the vegan convenience foods in my pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Mixed with my gratitude, however, is a shadow of concern. I sometimes wonder if convenience is costing us too much in terms of its effects on health.

I always felt that the vegetarian movement of the 1960s and 1970s was a part of a larger movement towards a more whole foods diet. Food co-ops sprang up; people scrutinized labels for additives, preservatives, white flour, and sugar. For example, I remember a sign proclaiming "White Sugar = Death" at the food co-op in Cleveland, Ohio, that I frequented. Cookbooks centered on whole wheat flour, brown rice, dried beans, and lots of wheat germ. Many of us smile now when we think of some of the foods we ate because they seemed so much better than the foods we grew up with.

As it so often does in food and nutrition, the pendulum seems to have swung away from the whole foods that were a feature of the vegetarian movement 25 or more years ago. Many vegetarian convenience foods feature ingredient labels that are anything but simple and that may include plenty of sugar, salt, and hydrogenated or saturated fat. Some people will say, "I'd be a vegetarian, but it just takes so much time!" If you or someone you know is in that situation, convenience foods can make a difference and may ease the transition to a vegetarian diet.

No, I'm not suggesting going back to spending hours cooking dried beans and whole grains. What I am suggesting is that we vegetarians take stock of our diets. Just because a product is vegetarian or vegan doesn't mean it's healthy. An occasional splurge on vegan dark chocolate or French fries is one thing; using these types of products daily as a mainstay of one's diet is something else. There are many convenience foods that are quick to prepare and that don't have a ton of artificial ingredients. These include canned beans (rinsed to reduce sodium), fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, nuts, and nut butters.

What's with the soy? My daughter's summer camp ate lunch at a local college. They offered vegan options everyday. Apparently, vegans only eat tofu hot dogs, tofu burgers, soy cheese, scrambled tofu, chili with TVP, and soy 'ice cream' at least, that's all they offered in terms of vegan options. I like tofu burgers and veggie pepperoni, but I do eat other foods. Is this the perception of vegetarians — give them fake meat and dairy products and they'll be happy? I hope not! While soy appears to be safe, never before have people regularly eaten the quantities of soy that some vegetarians eat. Think about it — soymilk on morning cereal and soysage at breakfast, soy deli slices on a lunch sandwich, soy nuts and a soy-based energy bar for snacks, a couple of soy burgers for dinner, and a bedtime snack of soy-based, non-dairy dessert. Soy can be a significant part of your diet. Considering what we know right now, there's no reason to avoid soy, but there's also no reason to base most meals on soy. Traditional cultures eat, on average, two to three servings of soy a day. So, try hummus on that lunch sandwich, snack on nuts or fruit, opt for a bean burrito in place of a veggie burger sometimes, and eat a frozen juice bar or sorbet instead of always going for a soy-based dessert!

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