Experts Warn Vegan Diets Could be Harmful to Children, Industry Responds

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12 May 2017 --- Following a vegan diet is nowadays, somewhat “normal” and acceptable. However, there have recently been concerns surrounding children and the effect on development that following a vegan diet may cause. Studies have shown that children who follow a vegan diet are leaner and smaller than those children who consume meat or those who have vegetarian diets. These claims have caused a stir in the industry, FoodIngredientsFirst takes a look at the research and responses. 

Innova Market Insights data show new foods and drinks featuring the term “vegan” accounted for 4.6% of total global introductions in 2016, up from just 1.2% in 2011. In the US, new vegan products accounted for a 6.6% of total new product introductions during 2016.

In 2016, the leading product categories for vegan claims were cereals, snacks, bakery foods and ready meals. There also has been considerable activity in soft drinks too, as well as in more specific sub-categories such as meat substitutes and dairy alternative drinks. 

Dairy alternative drinks still take a relatively small share of US dairy launches overall, with about 7.5% of the total in 2016. The sub-category was traditionally reliant on soy. More recently, however, there are many more alternative plant-based ingredients including cereals such as rice, oats and barley; and nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, walnuts and macadamias; as well as more unusual options such as hemp and flaxseed.

Established vegetarian brands such as Morningstar Farms (part of Kellogg’s) have expanded their vegan offerings. Morningstar Farms recent vegan launches include Meal Starters Chick’n Strips and Steak Strips. Likewise Kellogg’s Kashi subsidiary traditionally has focused on whole grain and plant-based recipes—and it also has a new range of vegan options. These include ready meal bowls featuring Sweet Potato Quinoa, Black Bean Mango and Chimichurri Quinoa varieties.

Experts at the 50th Annual Meeting of the European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) have warned that young children who follow a vegan diet without medical and dietary advice carry the risk of a number of nutrient deficiencies, including vitamin B12, calcium, zinc and high quality protein, which can have potentially devastating health effects.

“It is difficult to ensure a healthy and balanced vegan diet in young infants, and parents should understand the serious consequences of failing to follow advice regarding supplementation of the diet. The risks of getting it wrong can include irreversible cognitive damage and, in the extreme, death. Our advice is that if parents pursue a vegan diet for their child, they must seek and strictly follow medical and dietary advice to make sure their infant receives adequate nutrition. Both mother and infant should follow advice regarding supplementation,” advises Professor Mary Fewtrell, chairman of ESPGHAN's nutrition committee.

“The biggest risk to vegan children is that of vitamin B12 deficiency. Foods derived from animals have been shown to be the only reliable source of vitamin B12 and a deficiency of the vitamin can have devastating effects. Vitamin B12 is essential to the creation of DNA, indispensable for the maintenance of the nervous system, and a lack of it can result in haematological and neurological disorders, causing damage in young children which can be irreversible.”

Presenting to healthcare professionals at the ESPGHAN conference today, Professor Myriam Van Winckel said: “The more restricted the diet of the child, the greater the risk of deficiency and this is by far highest in vegan children, but the risk does not stop there. Vegan mothers who breastfeed also need to be aware that their children can develop vitamin B12 deficiency between 2 and 12 months because of the lack of reserves in their body at birth, even if the mother is not showing any signs of deficiency herself.”

Infants on vegan diets are also at risk of protein and calcium malnutrition, a situation made worse because parents can be misled by milk supplements. Rice milk, almond milk and soy milk suggest that they are suitable substitutes for milk, but experts say these should be properly labelled as ‘drinks’, because their nutritional value is not comparable to milk. Maintaining healthy levels of calcium is important for ensuring lifelong normal bone density, and rickets has been found in toddlers on a calcium-deficient diet consuming large amounts of non-supplemented soy drink.

However, unlike vegan diets, varied lacto (ovo) vegetarian and semi-vegetarian diets are generally safe. Although long term follow-up studies are scarce, they do not show a detrimental effect of vegetarian diets in children but instead point to beneficial health outcomes compared to omnivore diets, such as favorable lipid profile, antioxidant status, dietary fiber intake as well as tendencies towards a lower risk of being overweight.

The Vegan Society Responds
In a press release on the company’s website, the Vegan Society said: 
We respond to the allegations that young children who follow a vegan diet without medical and dietary advice are at risk of nutrient deficiencies.

Here at The Vegan Society we believe that veganism is a beautiful and honest way of living, and a vegan parent would naturally like for their children to live in this way too.

Raising children as vegan is not just about the nutritional benefits, but also about teaching them about compassion and treating other living beings with respect and equality. 

It’s important for children to understand where food comes from, how animals are treated, the impact that has on our health and the environment. This allows them to make informed choices based on facts and compassion rather than habit and what is perceived as the ‘norm’. 

However, the warning for young children who follow a vegan diet without medical and dietary advice is a non-story disguised as a breaking discovery made by experts. 

Every diet carries its risks, especially where children are concerned. All parents should carefully research diets for their children to ensure they are eating healthily and receive adequate nutrition. 

Nutrients deficiencies are not an exclusively vegan problem and it is unfair to paint them as such. 

Both children and adults are able to get their nutrients directly from plants, rather than consuming animals who filter the nutrients through their bodies or receive supplements themselves. 

Heather Russell, Dietitian at The Vegan Society, said: “Good nutrition is essential for giving kids a great start, and well-planned vegan diets can meet the needs of every family member as well as support normal growth and development.”
 
“Whether you are vegan or not, balanced diets include fruit and vegetables, starchy foods and foods rich in protein and calcium, and fortified foods and supplementation play important roles.”

“Certain nutrients in vegan diets deserve special attention, including vitamin B12, which is obtained from fortified foods and supplements. Iodine supplementation is also recommended, and should be considered by anyone eating a milk-free diet.”
 
“People worry that vegan diets contain too little protein and calcium, but it’s actually easy to obtain enough if you choose the right plant foods.”
 
“During the introduction of a vegan infant’s first foods, the use of unsweetened fortified soya milk in cooking is recommended. It contains as much calcium as cows’ milk and a similar amount of protein.” 

“Beans, chickpeas, lentils, soya mince, fortified soya yoghurt and tofu are just a few examples of other good sources of protein, and these foods provide zinc too.” 

“Introducing children to a wide variety of plant foods helps them to establish healthy habits for life. Eating a balanced vegan diet helps people to limit saturated fat and get plenty of fiber, and research has linked this way of eating with lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.”
 
“Both the British Dietetic Association and the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recognize that well-planned vegan diets can support healthy living in people of all ages.” 

by Elizabeth Green

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