Do you reach for convenient plant-based snacks not knowing whether they’re helping or hurting your health? Read on to find out how to make the best choices at the store and how much is too much. Take it away, Brenda…
Is Vegan Junk Food a Blessing or a Curse?
Most people assume that vegans give up donuts, cheesecake, s’mores, gummy bears, ice cream bars, chicken wings, cheeseburgers and every other favorite food imaginable. Twenty years ago, they would have been right. Today, they’d be dead wrong.
Vegan versions of almost every fast food are now yours for the taking. It is wonderful—and horrible—all at the same time. On the one hand, it is a bit of a relief to know that you can provide your child with a “reasonable look-alike” vegan food when their friends are enjoying ice cream bars on a hot summer day or roasting marshmallows at their highly anticipated class camp out.
Just because something is dairy free and doesn’t use animal products doesn’t mean it’s healthy. If you get a little too cozy with processed food, you could end up with a vegan diet that is as bad as the Standard American Diet (SAD) that we’re so determined to avoid.
The Cost of Eating Processed Vegan Foods
In this hectic world of multitasking, convenience foods have an undeniable attraction. While popping a veggie pie in the microwave is no doubt faster than cooking a meal from scratch, you have to consider the cost of cutting corners with the raw materials used to replace your brain cells (and the rest of your body!).
Processed, packaged foods are carefully designed to tantalize your taste buds and keep you coming back for more. This task is cleverly accomplished with salt, sugar, and fat, all of which have a nasty way of coming back to bite you in the butt.
Many assume vegan snacks are nutritionally beyond reproach. Don’t be fooled. Just because you see the word vegan on a label does not automatically qualify the item as healthful. Nor does it qualify it as low-calorie, low-fat, or “low” anything. Some of the world’s unhealthiest options are 100% vegan—soda pop and deep-fried salty snacks are two perfect examples.
How to Live a Vegan Lifestyle
What does this all mean when it comes to our food choices? Can you afford to eat any of the tempting treats sitting on store shelves? While you don’t have to completely eschew the tasty convenience foods that are appearing in ever-increasing numbers, you best be savvy about where on the spectrum these foods lie. The following guidelines will help you sort the proverbial wheat from the chaff.
Focus on a Whole Food Diet
Focus on eating vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Make these foods the centerpieces of all your meals. Shoot for at least 10 servings of vegetables and fruits, including at least three servings of leafy greens, each day. Limit your intake of vegan products like vegan cheese.
Eat Vegan Junk Food in Moderation
Frozen entrees, vegan meat, frozen whole grain waffles, packaged mixes, and the like can offer variety and enjoyment, but they should not become dietary staples. Eat them in moderation!
This includes vegan fast foods like vegan hot dogs, ice cream, candy bars, and sweet baked goods containing white flour and/or sugar.
Stick to First-Generation Soy Products When Possible
Stick to organic, first-generation soy products such as edamame, roasted soybeans, baked soybeans, tofu, tempeh, and soy milk. Minimize highly processed foods, especially those based on isolated soy protein or oil.
Learn to Read Nutrition Labels
Learn to read labels! While the nutrition facts give you a lot of valuable information about salt, sugar, fat and nutrient content, the ingredients list is every bit as important. Ingredients are listed by weight, so whatever appears first is present in the greatest quantity. Plus, watch out for ingredients that are tested on animals.
Make Sure You Get All of Your Nutrients
Make sure you are getting adequate nutrients from your diet, particularly vitamin B12, but also vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, iodine and essential fatty acids. Ignoring these nutrients can erode most of the advantages enjoyed on a whole-foods vegan diet.
25 Vegan Junk Foods To Enjoy in Moderation
Without further ado, here are some vegan foods (you might be surprised) that are delicious (but far from healthy). So enjoy these snacks in moderation when you’re on the go or need a treat!
#1 Swedish Fish
Though they’re shaped like fish, these gelatin-free gummy Swedish Fish are an animal-friendly sweet treat.
Oreos are a creme-stuffed cookie that’s well-known for being dunkable in milk—yet they’re completely dairy-free.
#3 Sour Patch Kids
Sour patch kids are another gelatin-free option packed full of sour flavors.
#4 The Original Cracker Jack
This salty and sweet treat combines peanuts, caramel, and popcorn for a delightful crunch.
#5 Kettle Brand Potato Chips
If you’re craving the crunch of potato chips, the Kettle brand is a great option for vegans.
#6 Ruffles Original Potato Chips
The crinkle-cut potato chips are another salty potato chip (just watch out for dairy products in some of the flavored options).
#7 Doritos Spicy Sweet Chili
Spicy Sweet Chili, Blaze, and Lightly Salted Doritos are all great options for vegans and perfect for dipping (guacamole, anyone?).
#8 Quaker Life Cereal (Cinnamon)
This cereal—when paired with a non-dairy milk option—delivers flavor and crunch and can quickly satisfy any sweet tooth.
#9 Duncan Hines Chewy Fudge Brownie Mix
The powdered portion of this brownie mix is vegan! You simply need to use a replacement for the egg.
#10 Famous Amos Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies
These peanut butter cookies—while not as famous as the chocolate chip cookies—are free of dairy products and packed full of peanut butter.
#11 Justin’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups
These are a great way to get your Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup craving’s covered (unless you want to try this recipe for homemade peanut butter cups).
#12 Lindt Chocolate Bars
If you stick to the rich dark chocolates (70% cocoa and higher) you’ll get your chocolate fix without animal products.
#13 Sara Lee/Marie Callender’s Frozen Pies
Some Sara Lee and Marie Callender frozen pies (like the apple) are free of animal products (but contain things like palm oil and wheat products). So not a gluten-free option but it could be worse for a pie, right?
#14 Nutter Butter Cookies
They may not taste exactly like peanut butter, but they’re salty, sweet, and completely plant-based.
#15 Unfrosted Pop Tarts
Long marketed as a breakfast food—but let’s be real, they’re a dessert—the blueberry, strawberry, and brown-sugar varieties without frosting are vegan-friendly.
#16 SkinnyPop White Cheddar Popcorn
While it literally says “white cheddar” on its label, there is no cheese to be found in this plant-based snack. Instead, they work some magic with non-dairy cheese flavor… almost as good as the real thing.
Just lots and lots of sugars in these chewy and tart candy strips.
Fritos are a simple snack made with corn, corn oil, and salt. As far as plant-based foods go, this one is pretty straightforward!
#19 Fruit by the Foot
Interestingly, the fruit in most flavors is “pear puree.”
#20 Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars
One of the only snacks on this list that contains whole grain oats, it could be worse as fast food alternatives go.
#21 Ritz Crackers
Though Ritz Crackers have a buttery flavor, the flavor is butter-free. Pair them with vegan cheeses, vegan meat alternatives, your favorite nut butter, and more!
#22 Wheat Thins
Another whole grain wheat cracker option that’s free of artificial colors and flavors, and also high fructose corn syrup.
#23 Hershey’s Syrup
Hershey’s chocolate syrup is another sweet, rich, chocolatey product that vegans can enjoy.
#24 Ore Ida Tater Tots
Potatoes, vegetable oils, and some natural flavors are combined to create Tater Tots.
#25 Original Pringles
Dried potatoes, corn flour, rice flour, and a few other ingredients are pressed together to form these potato chips.
Check Out Some of My Healthy Vegan Recipes
While these big brand vegan snacks can be handy to pick up on the go, I certainly wouldn’t recommend eating them on a regular basis. They’re fine to use sparingly, but you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck nutritionally by creating healthy versions at home or opting for packaged snacks made from whole foods.
Looking for more delicious vegan recipes that are a healthier alternative? Check out some of my vegan snack recipes! There are great snacks from plant sources that can satisfy any craving.
Love & snacks,
Brenda Davis, RD, is co-author of seven books, including “Becoming Vegan,” “The Raw Food Revolution Diet,” and “Defeating Diabetes.” Brenda is the lead dietitian in a diabetes intervention project in Majuro, Marshall Islands, and is a past chair of the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association.