Whether it’s for ethical, environmental, or personal reasons, it seems that more people are adopting veggie-forward lifestyles today than ever before. And with good reason: a recent article published by Canada’s Institute for Research on Public Policy states plainly that plant-based diets are “better for the environment and for public health” and boast difficult-to-dispute benefits like disease prevention and climate-change mitigation.
“It’s an insanely healthy way to live,” local registered dietitian Desiree Nielsen tells the Straight by phone. “Research shows that people who eat more plant-based foods are healthier than people who have a more processed or animal-based diet. So the more people shift in that direction, the healthier they will be.”
As vegetarianism and veganism enter the mainstream, however, so too do a number of plant-based fads—from charcoal-spiked carbs to matcha everything—that look (and taste) appealing enough for even omnivores to gobble up. But do their detoxifying, nutritional, and immune-boosting claims live up to the hype? In light of October being Vegetarian Awareness Month (yes, it’s a thing), we asked Nielsen to break down some of the biggest plant-based food crazes—and their pros and cons—that you may have spotted trending in Vancouver of late.
Typically referred to as activated charcoal, this is “essentially a black powder made by burning things like wood or coal down until they’re little more than carbon”, says Nielsen. You’ve probably seen charcoal in face masks and scrubs, but some savvy locals have incorporated it into foods like ice cream, sourdough bread, and lemonade.
The claim: The high temperature required to produce activated charcoal “turns the carbon into little sponges”, explains Nielsen, which bind drugs and toxins in the body and prevent them from being absorbed in the digestive tract. As a result, charcoal has been dubbed a “detoxifier” that prevents poisons from affecting our bodily systems.
The hitch: While charcoal does bond toxins—and is even employed to treat drug overdoses—the ingredient “doesn’t really discriminate”, says Nielsen, and can bind medications, supplements, and beneficial compounds like vitamin C. This stops our bodies from absorbing these nutrients.
The verdict: “It looks cool and if you enjoy playing with it from a culinary perspective, that’s fine,” says Nielsen. “But it’s not a good detoxifier and could end up causing you harm if it’s limiting the amount of vitamins and supplements you’re consuming from your food.”
A vegan alternative to dairy milks, oat milk is made from blended and strained oats. According to Nielsen, the food has long been popular in Scandinavia but has only recently picked up steam in Canada.
The claim: Oat milk is a source of protein and essential nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. It also has a leg up over almond milk because, unlike water-thirsty almonds, oats are grown almost exclusively with rain. “It’s a great eco-friendly choice,” notes Nielsen.
The hitch: Some store-bought oat milks contain added sugar, which may negate the health benefits. “Try to look for something that’s totally unsweetened,” says Nielsen, who lists SoFresh’s made-in-Canada oat beverage as one of her favourites.
The verdict: “I think it’s an awesome choice,” says Nielsen. “Between oat milk and soy milk, it’s my new go-to. It tastes delicious.”
A tropical fruit indigenous to India and popular throughout South and Southeast Asia, jackfruit has an “ultraneutral” flavour, says Nielsen, and a starchy, fibrous texture comparable to that of pork. You’ve probably seen it masquerading as vegan “pulled pork” on steamed buns and pizzas served by a number of plant-based eateries around town.
The claim: Jackfruit is high in potassium, calcium, and magnesium and is a good source of vitamins C and D. It’s also very versatile in the kitchen. “Because it’s so neutral, as long as you marinate it well, it really kind of takes on whatever flavour you give it,” Nielsen adds. “It’s sort of like tofu: a really great blank canvas.”
The hitch: While jackfruit may make a great stand-in for pork, the food is not a significant source of protein. In addition, if you’re purchasing canned versions, it’s best to opt for water-packed jackfruit rather than the packaged kind in syrup.
The verdict: “It’s amazing,” says Nielsen. “But if you’re plant-based, know it doesn’t have protein, so you can compensate somewhere else in your diet.”
With roots in Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine, adaptogenic herbs are plants that work with your adrenal system to “help your body adapt and find a new balance in times of stress”, explains Nielsen. They often come in powder form and may be incorporated into lattes, chocolates, and smoothies. (Vancouver’s Nectar Juicery makes a tasty almond-milk latte that uses an adaptogen called ashwagandha.)
The claim: There are many adaptogenic herbs, such as matcha, moringa, and rhodiola, that are said to offer a myriad of benefits, including lowering cortisol, the hormone that’s triggered in chronic- and high-stress situations; serving as an excellent source of iron; and reducing stress-induced suppression of the body’s immune system.
The hitch: While some users report positive effects from the consumption of adaptogenic herbs, the literature does not always support them. Some adaptogens may also interfere with the function of medications.
The verdict: “It’s important to do your research because some [adaptogenic herbs] have great history, but not a lot of great science,” states Nielsen. “Speak with a health professional so you know which one is right for you based on your needs.”