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It’s an exciting time to be vegan – there seems to always be new and innovative pre-packaged products on the market! Although a convenient and tasty choice, unfortunately, these pre-packaged products can sometimes be too good to be true and may not very nutritious.
Pre-packaged vegan products are processed foods (aka vegan junk food), after all– they don’t exist in nature! ‘Processed Food’ by definition, is food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, or packaged. Processed food falls on a spectrum from minimally processed (cut vegetables) to heavily processed (pre-made meals).
Buying processed food certainly adds convenience, however it can also mean consuming too many calories and too much sodium and added sugar. Processed food may not provide enough nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. This can lead to us becoming over-fed and under-nourished.
However, it is possible to find pre-packaged plant-based products that are more nutritious compared to some others! I am here to help.
What to Look For On The Nutrition Label
To find those better pre-packaged vegan or plant-based products, let’s first start with examining the nutrition label, which includes the nutrition facts panel and the ingredients list.
How to Read Nutrition Facts
- A nutrient facts panel is required on all packaged food. But deciphering it can be overwhelming since you need to gauge if there is enough – or too much – of an ingredient or macronutrients like fat or sugar to be healthy.
- One tool that can help us gauge whether there is an abundance of added sugar or fat, for instance, is the percent daily value (DV) on the right-hand column of the label.
- Use the 5 percent and 15 percent rules to follow. So if there is 5 percent of a macronutrient (such as fat) that means there’s just a little of that nutrient in a product, while 15 percent means there’s a lot.
- Ideally, Salt, Sugar, and Saturated or Trans Fat make up less than 5 percent of your product
- Ideally, Fiber, Vitamins, and Minerals make up more than 15 percent of the product
- Depending on if the product, and whether it’s a snack or a meal, you need to look at other specific nutrients as well. For example, we would expect alternative meats or protein powders to be a good source of protein (at least 10 grams of protein per serving) and non-dairy products to be a good source of calcium (at least 30 percent of your daily recommended value).
The Importance of the Ingredients List
- Look for products with fewer, more simple-sounding ingredients, and whole foods listed on the label. Ideally, the product has fewer than 10 ingredients and the first one is a whole food such as beans, rice, peas, or a vegetable that grows in the ground or on a plant or tree. A long list of ingredients that contains unrecognizable names or chemical additives can indicate that the item you’re holding is less natural and also less nutrient-dense. Skip it!
- Remember that the ingredients are listed in order of descending weight. Therefore, we want to examine the first three ingredients especially, as these are the ones present in the largest quantity. If sugar is listed in one of the first three ingredients, I would recommend we skip that product.
- There are notions out there that certain ingredients should be avoided on the ingredients list, as they are horrible for our health. However, we must consider the quantity of the ingredient in the product, how often we eat it, etc. For example, there are notions out there about avoiding carrageenan – which is a common food additive extracted from red seaweed and is often used as a thickening agent. The FDA has approved carrageenan as safe but concerns remain. A 2017 review of research concluded that even food-grade carrageenan can cause inflammation and lead to digestive illnesses. Another review of studies done in 2018 found no ill effect of food-grade carrageenan on human health. Note that human studies on carrageenan are minimal and most of the studies are on animals and cells, not humans. If you choose to eliminate carrageenan from your diet then check labels for it, but there is scant scientific research to support the need to do so.
The Best and Worst Vegan Products to Buy
Now, let’s examine the best and worst vegan products in each category, along with why they are deserving of their ‘ranking’.
Best and Worst Vegan Burgers
- BEST: Dr. Praeger’s Perfect Burger
- WORST: Yves Garden Vegetable Patties
When it comes to veggie burgers, we want to look for ones that contain a good source of protein, from whole foods and ones where the ingredient list isn’t too long. After all, we are looking for a substitution for a beef-based patty, which is high in protein and minimally processed.
Dr. Praeger’s Perfect Burgers pack in a good 20 grams of protein (from pea protein) and 30 percent of our iron needs per burger – which is comparable to a beef burger. The ingredient list isn’t long (about 10 ingredients) and recognizable, whole foods are present (such as sweet potato, squash, and carrot puree).
On the other hand, the popular brand Yves has a veggie burger (Garden Vegetable Patties) that isn’t as impressive, nutritionally speaking. It’s great that vegetables are incorporated, however, the list of ingredients is on the longer side and includes various additives. The sodium content is 15 percent (on the higher side) for one patty and you’re only getting 9 grams of protein and 15 percent of your daily iron needs – which doesn’t compare to a beef burger or the Dr. Praeger’s Perfect Burger.
For the best tasting and healthiest plant-based burgers to try, check out The Beet Meter where you’ll find each one rated for health and taste.
Best and Worst Vegan Cheese
- BEST: Kite Hill Cream Cheese Style Spread
- WORST: Follow Your Heart Dairy-Free Cheese
A number of vegan cheese are essentially a compilation of a bunch of different oils. Look for ones that have a low saturated fat percentage – under 5 percent – as they typically use a lot of coconut oil and/or palm oil, both of which are rich in saturated fat, shown to be less heart-healthy than unsaturated fat. Look for cheeses with simple ingredients and ones that are low in sodium as well.
I’m a big fan of Kite Hill’s Cream Cheese Style Spread. The product is made primarily with almond milk and very few other ingredients. The saturated fat is zero percent and the sodium is 9 percent for a 2 tablespoon serving.
The Follow Your Heart Dairy-Free Cheese Mozzarella, unfortunately, is not as nutritionally good. (we say unfortunately because it’s delicious.) It contains 25 percent of your daily value of saturated fat and is made mostly from coconut oil, starch, and canola oil. The sodium is 9 percent daily value.
The healthiest choice would be to make your own vegan cheese with cashews, nutritional yeast, and garlic. It’s easy: Simply soak 1 cup of cashews in hot water for about half an hour. Discard the water and blend with 2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast, 2 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice, and ¼ teaspoon of garlic powder. Pulse repeatedly to break down the cashews until smooth. Add water as needed, or until the cashew cheese is smooth and thick.
For more vegan or plant-based products to try that are rated for health and taste, check out The Beet Meter, including the 5 best non-dairy cream cheeses to try.
For the best non-dairy cheese products, check out The Beet Meter where the editors of The Beet taste test and rate the plant-based cheese alternatives for health and taste so you can find the one that’s right for you.
Best and Worst Non-Dairy Milk & Non-Dairy Creamers
- BEST: Ripple Milk – Unsweetened
- WORST: Oatsome Organic Oat Milk Barista
The best non-dairy milk choices are unsweetened (the flavored versions can have as much sugar as a dessert!), are fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and B12, and contain a similar amount of protein to cow’s milk (about 7 to 8 grams). Also, look for varieties that are without added sugars and skip “barista” varieties – as these are formulated to foam and steam so the ingredients will be more than just oats and water.
The best non-dairy milk is Ripple, which is made from pea protein isolate. It is quite nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk, but with fewer calories and more calcium. It contains only 80 calories, 8 grams of protein, 440 mg of calcium, 6 mcg of Vitamin D, and 2.5 mcg of B12. What is also great is that it provide DHA from algal oil, to support brain health.
Although oat milks are delicious, there aren’t always nutritionally great. They are higher in calories, lower in protein, and can be quite high in carbohydrates (mostly sugar) and calories. Outsome Organic Oat Milk Barista comes in at 180 calories per cup, 10 g of fat (from the added oil), 21 grams of carbohydrates (13 sugar), and 2 grams of protein. Unfortunately, it’s not fortified with calcium or vitamin D either.
For the best plant-based or non-dairy milk to try, check out The Beet Meter, where the editors of The Beet rate 11 non-dairy milks by health and taste criteria to help you choose the one that’s right for you.
If you wanted to make your own non-dairy milk, you can do that easily! My favorite non-dairy milk to make is cashew milk. Simply drain and rinse 1 cup of soaked cashews and combine them in a blender with 4 cups of filtered water, 2 pitted dates, and 1 tsp vanilla extract. Blend until smooth and creamy.
Best and Worst Non-Dairy Yogurt
- BEST: Kite Hill Greek- Style Yogurt
- WORST: So Delicious Dairy-Free Coconut Milk Yogurt Alternative in Vanilla
Looking at plant-based yogurts, we would want there to be a decent protein amount (over 10 grams per serving), without having a lot of sugar and other additives. A bit of calcium would be nice as well.
My top non-dairy yogurt pick is Kite Hill’s Greek- Style Yogurt. This yogurt is made from almond milk and has 11 g of protein per serving (150 g) and only 2 grams of sugar (and 0 g of added sugar) per serving. There is about 10% of our calcium needs supplied by this yogurt.
The So Delicious Dairy-Free Coconut Milk Yogurt in Vanilla is not as impressive. It has less than 1 gram of protein per serving (150 g) and a whopping 16 g of sugar. Even the plain flavor has 10 g of sugar per serving. I’m also not a big fan of the amount of saturated fat (over 18% per serving) that it provides.
For the best non-dairy yogurts to try, check out The Beet Meter, where the editors of The Beet rate 12 plant-based yogurts by health and taste criteria so you can find the right one for you.
You actually can make your own homemade vegan yogurt with tofu! Simply blend together 2 cups of frozen fruit, ½ cup of soaked cashews, 12 ounces of silken tofu and1 tbsp lemon juice. Then, sprinkle 1-2 vegan probiotic capsules into the mixture and stir. Let it sit to thicken for up 5 days and enjoy!
Best and Worst Vegan Protein Powder
- BEST: Sun Warrior Organic Vegan Protein Powder Warrior Blend – Unsweetened
- WORST: Swanson Vegan Protein With Probiotics
When examining protein powders, we want to stick to ones that contain only the protein source – avoid ones with large ingredients lists of additives. The best vegan protein powders contain a mix of protein sources – i.e. brown rice, pea, hemp, etc, as these provide proteins with varying amounts of amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Another priority for vegan protein powders is to stay away from added flavors and sugars.
My top pick is the Sun Warrior Organic Vegan Protein Powder Warrior Blend in unsweetened. It contains a mix of pea protein and hemp protein. Pea protein may increase muscle growth as effectively as animal-based protein powders. It chalks in at 19 grams of protein per scoop and contains 6 mg of iron.
On the other hand, I’m not a huge fan of the Swanson Vegan Protein With Probiotics. Although it’s made with a blend of hemp, rice, and pea protein, they pack their product with a ton of brown rice syrup solids and up the sugar count to 20 grams in a three scoop serving.
For the best vegan protein powders rated by health and taste, check out The Beet Meter, where the editors of The Beet taste test 10 best sellers and rate them so you can find the one that’s right for you.
Best and Worst Vegan Chicken
- BEST: Beyond Meat Grilled Beyond Chicken Strips
- WORST: Yves Veggie Chick’n Tenders Ancient Grains
A 3 ounce serving of chicken contains about 20 grams of protein, so we would be looking for a similar amount of protein with vegan chicken! Ideally, we avoid any vegan chicken with a lot of breading or sauces, as this increases the sugar and calorie content.
My top pick in this category is the Beyond Meat Grilled Beyond Chicken Strips. For an 85 gram serving, you are getting a whopping 22 g of protein! Pretty comparable to real chicken. There are no breading or sauces with these products either.
The Yves Veggie Chick’n Tenders have a huge ingredient list, which indicates the level of processing to the product – and this product is pretty processed! With a serving size of only four tenders, this product brings in 650 mg of sodium which is 28% of our daily sodium needs. They also contain 3 g of pro-inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids. They do provide 16 grams of protein, however, you are much better off with the Beyond Meat choice.
For the best plant-based chicken alternatives check out The Beet meter, where our taste tester tried out the latest plant-based or vegan nuggets and they are rated for taste and health.
Best and Worst Vegan Pork
- BEST: Field Roast Smoked Apple & Sage Sausages
- WORST: Yves Veggie Dogs
Pork also packs a protein punch, so we want to be looking for vegan substitutions that do the same while keeping the ingredient list small.
I’m a big fan of the Field Roast Smoked Apple & Sage Sausages, as they provide a whopping 26 grams of protein per serving. The ingredient list is short and made up of mostly water, vital wheat gluten, safflower oil, dried apples, and potatoes.
On the other hand, the Yves Veggie Dogs only contain 10 g of protein per serving, but come with a long list of ingredients, including additives and fillers.
For the best vegan or plant-based pork alternatives check out The Beet Meter where our taste tester tried the most popular vegan port products and rate them for health and taste.
Bottom Line: Plant-based processed foods come in a range of health options
At the end of the day the healthiest choice is always to make your own vegan or plant-based products, but when you need a quick fix or you have to put a convenient meal on the table, just make sure you know what you’re buying and choose the healthiest ones you can find!