The Veganuary was more popular than ever this year: around nine percent of Germans used the month to try animal-free food. But what does the waiver really do for health and the environment? FOCUS online makes the check.

Vegan diet is becoming more and more popular. For example, this year’s “Veganuary” inspired around nine percent of the adult population in Germany to consciously try animal-free nutrition. The organization announced that more than 850 companies from the economy took part across Germany.

Many view the vegan diet as very positive, and not just from a nutritional perspective. Wildlife and climate also benefit. But what does it really bring? The FOCUS online fact check with nutritionist Markus Keller, the first professor of vegan nutrition ever.

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In the discussion about the meaningfulness of a vegan diet, the common opinion that vegans are almost always malnourished comes up again and again. The critical nutrients are therefore primarily:

The deficit is said to be caused by not eating meat and other animal products. At the top of the list of deficiencies: vitamin B12. And this risk of undersupply actually exists. “B12 is virtually non-existent in plant-based foods, so vegans should definitely supplement it with supplements or fortified foods,” recommends nutritionist Keller.

Previous studies had repeatedly shown that vitamin B12 deficiency, measured by various blood values, actually exists in the majority of vegans. Recent studies, however, hardly prove this anymore, because apparently many vegans are now taking sensible supplements – but not all of them.

A bad conscience, because vitamin B12 for food supplements is formed with the help of special bacteria, and these are animals, vegans don’t have to have. “Bacteria are not animals, but form their own biological kingdom,” the scientist clarifies.

With vitamin D, however, the situation is different. How well we are supplied with vitamin D has little to do with nutrition in the first place. The vitamin is only found in large quantities in fatty sea fish, which probably nobody eats often. Dairy products and eggs provide little vitamin D.

So what is much more important when it comes to vitamin D: How long and how often do we stay outside? Is the sky cloudy, is the air pollution high or not? As is well known, the body forms vitamin D in its own synthesis under the influence of sunlight.

Iron, on the other hand, is a typical nutrient associated with meat. “However, vegans often get more iron in their diet than people who eat meat,” reports Keller. The most important sources are legumes, whole grains, nuts – the well-known basic foods of these forms of nutrition.

However, the absorption of plant-based iron is lower than iron from animal sources – which, however, usually compensates for the high intake of vegan diets. “Studies have been showing for decades that iron anemia (anemia caused by iron deficiency) is no more common among vegans than among meat eaters,” explains the nutritionist. However, their iron stores (ferritin) are somewhat lower than among omnivores, but mostly within the normal range.

Next to vitamin B12, calcium is the second most important critical nutrient in a vegan diet. Because the main source of calcium in the usual diet is dairy products, which are omitted for vegans.

“You must therefore look for alternatives,” advises Markus Keller, “types of cabbage such as kale, broccoli and pak choi, as well as calcium-rich mineral water, which should contain at least 400 mg/l of calcium.” Plant-based milk alternatives such as oat or soy milk can also be fortified with calcium and thus help to meet the daily recommended intake for this mineral (1000 mg per day for adults), which is important for bone health, among other things.

How healthy the bones are depends not only on the calcium intake, but also on the vitamin D supply and the body’s acid load. Acids, which mainly come from the sulphur-containing amino acids in meat and cheese, cause a lot of calcium to be excreted unused – if non-alkaline foods balance the acid load.

A vegan diet can often be an advantage here because it forms less acid and contains more alkaline foods, especially vegetables and fruit. As a result, less calcium is excreted, so the calcium balance can be similar to that of a mixed diet. “Vegans absorb less calcium, but also excrete less than omnivores,” summarizes Markus Keller.

Nevertheless, some studies indicate that older vegans in particular have a higher risk of osteoporosis because they do not consume enough calcium.

“Of course, vegans should make better use of the alternatives here,” warns Keller, referring to “The Gießen Vegan Food Pyramid”, which he developed together with colleagues at the Institute for Alternative and Sustainable Nutrition in Gießen.

But when the critical nutrients for vegans are mentioned, the other side should also be examined. “There are some nutrients and ingredients that vegans are much better supplied with than omnivores,” explains the nutritionist.

These are primarily vitamin C and folic acid from fresh fruit and vegetables, secondary plant substances, but also magnesium and dietary fiber from whole grains – vital substances that omnivores often lack. This partly explains why certain common diseases occur less frequently among vegans than in other groups.

Markus Keller emphasizes that these figures have already been adjusted for numerous lifestyle factors such as obesity, physical activity, alcohol consumption and smoking.

Older studies showed a significantly lower overall risk of cancer for vegans, but also for vegetarians. “According to current studies, however, there are no differences in the most common types of cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer, compared to mixed diets,” the researcher qualifies.

This finding cannot be explained at the moment, because vegetarians and vegans implement many of the dietary and lifestyle factors recommended for cancer prevention, such as consuming lots of vegetables and fruit and no sausages. Scientists suspect that it could be because omnivores who take part in health studies are already eating more consciously, eating less meat and sausages than meat eaters in the general population. The study participants are therefore probably already in better health than the average.

However, vegan does not only mean fruit, vegetables and whole grain products, but also meat and sausage substitutes. The vegan sausages, schnitzel and meat loaf have come under particular criticism, at least since they appeared as industrial mass-produced goods in the refrigerated shelves of discounters.

Because soy or seitan, the basis of the products, taste like something at all, numerous additives are said to be necessary. They also often contain too much salt and fat, according to criticism. “The accusation that everything is only from the laboratory and synthetically produced, quasi Frankenstein food, is far too general,” judges Markus Keller. In the study “Nutritional assessment of conventionally and organically produced vegetarian and vegan meat and sausage alternatives” he examined 80 products.

With regard to the additives, the meat alternatives can be divided into two main groups. The difference lies in whether it is an organic product or a conventional product.

Markus Keller’s study showed that organic products performed significantly better than conventional variants because they did not contain any flavor enhancers or aromas, for example. Significantly fewer additives are allowed in the organic version than in conventional goods.

However, the length of the ingredient list alone says little. The organic products often have an extensive range, because they sometimes contain ten different herbs and spices. “On average, the vegan organic meat alternatives in our study contained an additive,” says the expert. This is usually the binding agent guar gum, which is completely natural. In conventional meat substitutes, the researchers counted an average of 3.5 additives per product.

Do these meat and sausage alternatives even make sense for vegan and vegetarian diets? Markus Keller says: No. “You don’t actually need them, but they are a good way to start reducing meat and sausage consumption.”

The vegan images are particularly popular with children when they have a snack at school or day care with other children who, for example, have their sausage sandwiches with them.

The study was able to refute the accusation that the vegan alternatives contain too much fat: On average, they provide less fat than their meat-based counterparts, and above all significantly less saturated fatty acids, which are known to make sausage and meat so risky for your health.

Exception: Individual vegan variants contain palm or coconut fat, which are also saturated, i.e. unfavorable fatty acids.

However, the salt content in vegan products is comparable to that in meat products, i.e. too high.

The recommendation is therefore: For vegan meat alternatives, prefer organic products, read the list of ingredients, pay attention to the type of fat and salt content and ultimately try what you like.

The data as to why vegan food also protects the environment and benefits the climate is clear. But it’s not just science deniers who still accuse vegans and vegetarians of cutting down the rainforest to grow soy for tofu. However, as the expert clarifies, the facts are different.

Around 80 percent of soy production worldwide does not go into the production of tofu and meat substitutes, but into animal feed.

An example: there is around four times as much soy in every poultry kebab as in a tofu kebab of the same size – due to feeding. So many meat eaters indirectly eat more soy than the strictest vegan.

For vegan products, in any case organic goods, the rainforest does not have to die. The German tofu manufacturers now mainly use soybeans from regional cultivation or buy their raw materials in other EU countries such as Austria, France and Italy. The chickpeas often used in vegan cuisine do not come from the tropics either, but from Turkey and Italy, for example.

In addition to soy as a meat substitute, lupine flour is becoming increasingly popular. Here, organic goods are also increasingly being produced in Germany, from lupins grown here. Concerns that lupine products may contain dangerous alkaloids are not unfounded. But that only applies to bitter lupins. Consumers should therefore only buy products made from sweet lupins.

However, exotic foods such as avocados, bananas, chia seeds and goji berries have been criticized. The high water consumption and the climate-damaging long transport routes – so the vegan is not that ecological after all. However, these are foods that are also consumed by omnivores, i.e. are not a vegan privilege, just like coffee and tea, which have also come a long way.

Here everyone has to weigh up and decide for themselves. And if long transport routes are still accepted because it doesn’t work regionally – such as with coffee and tea – at least organic quality is a practical criterion. This means that cultivation and processing are at least regulated in a more environmentally friendly way.

And what about the “water eater” avocado? Around 2000 liters of water are used per kilogram for the production. According to Keller, that is a lot, but compared to other foods, their water footprint is not that big – the production of one kilo of bread uses around 1600 liters of water, soybeans per kilogram 2000 liters of water, eggs 3300, pork 4500, cheese 5000 and beef more than 15,000.

Compared to animal foods, avocados fare much better, as do all other plant foods. The water balance of omnivores who eat meat, sausage, eggs, cheese and sometimes avocados is therefore significantly less favourable. Nevertheless, it makes ecological sense not to eat avocados by the kilo – and if one is on the table, it should preferably come from Europe.

Emissions that are harmful to the climate, i.e. greenhouse gases such as C02, methane and nitrous oxide, also occur through the production of vegan food. However, a whole series of studies shows that the less meat consumed, the fewer greenhouse gases are produced.

“If you switched from the usual diet to vegan, that could halve the amount of greenhouse gases that are produced in the food sector and save around a third with a vegetarian diet,” explains Markus Keller. Some studies even assume that this change will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the food sector by up to 70 percent.

In Germany, about 25 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions are due to food and thus as much as to the transport sector or housing. According to the Climate Protection Act, these emissions should be zero by 2050, i.e. climate neutrality should be created.

Much still needs to be done for this. Nutrition plays an important role in this, even if it can never lead to zero emissions. However, with vegan, organic, regional and avoiding food waste, everyone can contribute.

In addition to the ecological questions about the advantages and disadvantages of vegan, vegetarian and mixed diets, there is also the most pressing problem of the future, feeding the growing world population. The forecast for 2050 is almost ten billion people, around two billion more than today.

Mixed diets are definitely not an option here – because of the associated greenhouse gas pollution, further clearing for pastures and thus the destruction of important resources, as well as water shortages. As is well known, almost half of the global grain harvest currently goes to animals intended for meat processing or milk production. Corn and soy even end up in animal feed more often than on the plate.

“If all plant-based foods that humans could eat and that we feed to animals today were used directly for our nutrition, four billion more people could be fed than today,” says the scientist, citing the facts. That would be even more people than the projected increase of two billion for 2050 – with the amount of plant-based food already produced today, without using additional resources.

Cereals, corn and soy lose a large part of their calorie and protein content if they take the detour via animals as feed. Direct consumption would also be more economical. At the same time, the climate would benefit.

Vegan or vegetarian would therefore not only be the healthier form of nutrition, but also the ecologically and economically more sensible and, last but not least, the fairer, because it could feed everyone in the world sufficiently.

That doesn’t mean that everyone should immediately go from meat fanatic to vegan. However, to claim that a vegan diet makes you ill is nonsense. The opposite is often the case, as studies show.