Veganism is on the rise. There are tens of millions of vegans in the world, amounting to more than 1% of the world’s population, per some estimates. With demand for plant-based foodstuffs soaring, meat and milk substitutes are selling faster than ever before. According to the Good Food Institute, global retail sales of plant-based meat products alone hit $6.1 billion in 2022. Vegan groups call this trend a revelation for our health and the environment.
Nature offers very few sources of protein that don’t come from meat, milk, or eggs, and there are only so many beans and lentils a person can eat, so some ingredients crop up repeatedly among the alternatives to animal-based products. Soy, for instance, is found in meat substitutes tempeh and tofu while soy milk is a leading milk replacement.
Soybeans, then, are a vital component of a plant-based diet. Unfortunately, in the rush to disregard animal products, vegans have married themselves to products such as soy whose environmental impacts are further-reaching and deeply damaging. Besides substantial greenhouse gas emissions fueling climate change, soybean production leads to soil erosion, mass deforestation, and water shortages.
Meanwhile, other non-dairy milks wreak environmental havoc in various ways. Researchers found glyphosate, a herbicide associated with myriad eco-disasters, in two popular oat milk brands. Rice milk production generates methane, just like cows, and sometimes contains arsenic. Manufacturing almond milk fuels droughts and kills bees en masse. And coconut farming destroys soil’s nutritional qualities, rendering the land practically unusable for any other crop.
Other ubiquitous vegan products do not fare better. “Pleather,” the plant-based community’s answer to leather, dodges the methane emitted by the cow farms needed to produce traditional leather. But most artificial leathers contain plastics such as polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride, which are rarely biodegradable and whose production often involves well-known eco-villains chlorine and petroleum.
In health terms, veganism’s scorecard is once again full of failing grades. The health risks associated with plant-based diets are too many to list. They include hair loss, anemia, weakened muscles and bones, and skin irritation. The risks are especially pronounced for women and children, who suffer a heightened risk of malnutrition from an unsupplemented vegan diet.
Some claim replacing your meat and dairy intake with soy products lessens the risk of cancer, but the science suggests it makes little difference. The health risks of inflated soy consumption, on the other hand, are serious and well-established. A study by the University of California, Riverside, based on bodily reactions to soy in mice and published in the respectable Endocrinology journal, found links with diabetes, obesity, insulin resistance, and fatty liver.
That team’s later research went on to find alarming effects on the brain from soy intake. Soy affects the hypothalamus, the part of the brain related to metabolism, body temperature, reproduction, physical growth, and other vital functions. The scientists discovered interruptions to the normal activity and hormone production of the brain, especially around oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone.” Extrapolating these effects out over a lifetime, the researchers expressed concern that soy intake could contribute to diseases including autism and Parkinson’s.
Even in the face of rampant fossil fuel production in China, wanting to do one’s bit for the planet is a valiant aim. Similarly, even in the fast-food age, being conscious of diet choices’ health impacts is no bad thing. But the vegan lifestyle is not the silver bullet many claim. Beneath the surface, it is often alarmingly unhealthy and unfriendly to the planet. We omnivores ought to enjoy our meat- and dairy-filled diets guilt-free.