Recently I was sent a link to a documentary by a friend which, according to said friend, was about veganism. It turned out not to really be about veganism at all but about “clean-eating”, although after watching it I could forgive my friend’s confusion. The documentary was called “Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets”, originally aired on BBC 3, and the basic premise was to investigate whether health claims made by proponents of clean eating (mostly bloggers) could be trusted.
I’d like to make it clear from the start that I was not totally against the premise of the documentary; unqualified people giving dietary advice online is not something I’d consider a good idea, especially if they’re causing people to have a negative relationship with food, or if they are preying on people’s ignorance about nutrition to sell their overpriced products. In general, I just get irritated by people spreading false information or pseudoscience as if it’s fact, which is what a lot of these so-called health gurus seem to do; so I applaud the documentary’s efforts to expose this trend.
Take soya, for example; this humble bean is considered public enemy number one by many health fanatics, apparently causing everything from Alzheimer’s disease to breast cancer (see, for example, this article).
There is, however, very little scientific evidence that the consumption of soya is inherently harmful. A factsheet on the consumption of soya foods compiled by the British Dietetic Association concluded that “Research on soya foods is ongoing, but it is clear that soya is nutritious, safe and healthy”.
This factsheet also cited a report by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AIRC) which stated that there is no evidence that eating soya increases the risk of breast cancer, or is harmful to those diagnosed with breast cancer. Instead, the report pointed to studies that suggest soya consumption may actually reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Anyway, back to the documentary, what bothered me the most was that the word vegan seemed to be used interchangeably with clean eating or plant-based. Right at the start of the show, the narrator said, “The number of vegans in the UK has more than tripled in 10 years, but the bloggers like to call themselves plant-based instead” before showing a list of items that plant-based dieters (and, by association, vegans) supposedly avoid. The following screenshot shows this list:
As soon as I saw this I actually laughed out loud in disbelief. White pasta, rice and flour? Wheat? Chemicals? (that last one especially gets under my skin.. and makes me want to yell “everything is made of chemicals, you fools!” and throw things at the TV screen…).
The programme went on to show the presenter wandering around a supermarket, waving loaves of gluten-free bread around and bemoaning how expensive it is to be vegan. A quick search online will show you that the makers of this documentary are not the only ones that are getting plant-based diets and veganism confused (see here for another typical example).
So why does this matter?
Veganism is more than just a diet, for starters vegans also don’t wear animal products like leather or fur, and try to avoid toiletries and cosmetics that are tested on animals. Calling veganism a “lifestyle” is slightly more accurate, as it encompasses the non-dietary factors mentioned, but I think the most accurate description would be an ideology.
The suffix “ism” supports this, as in feminism, Marxism, socialism (etc.). Veganism describes a set of beliefs which is neatly summarised by The Vegan Society: “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. A “vegan diet” is simply a diet that adheres to the principles of veganism.
The problem with veganism being mixed up with plant-based and clean eating is that it makes veganism look more difficult, joyless, and expensive than it truly is. The gluten free bread that featured in the documentary cost £6.75; the presenter found it in a specialist, organic supermarket. Yes, that cost is ridiculous, but unless you have a gluten intolerance or coeliac disease there is probably no need to buy it [2,3]. Tesco’s “everyday value” sliced white bread is listed vegan on their site and costs 40p.
The confusion also makes it difficult for non-vegans to know what we do and don’t eat (the number of times I’ve been offered gluten-free options after telling someone I’m vegan is pretty shocking…). Non-vegans aren’t the only ones that are confused; I’ve seen lots of posts on vegan groups from people worried about soya after reading articles online. This is troubling because it suggests that vegans are being put off certain foods which are in fact healthy, and potentially over-restricting their diets and missing out on important nutrients.
Finally, if people see veganism as a health fad, promoted by people with minimal nutritional knowledge, then how can we expect them to take us seriously, let alone consider exploring veganism for themselves?
- BDA Food Fact Sheet. Soya, food and health. (Accessed 28/04/2017)
- Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School. Going gluten-free just because? Here’s what you need to know. (Accessed 28/04/2017)
- WebMD. The Truth About Gluten. (Accessed 28/04/2017)