06/13/2011 08:42 am ET | Updated Aug 13, 2011

Healthy Vegan: How To Avoid 3 Common Pitfalls

Thinking about going vegan? Know someone who is? As vegan gets more airplay with Oprah, Clinton and Wynn, increasingly some of the most common questions I'm asked are "What do you think of vegan?" or "How do I cook vegan at home?"

Without debating the pros and cons of going vegan (a debate that will no doubt be too big for this post), being a natural foods chef, the first thing of value to me is the quality of the ingredients in a food. One thing I find to be paramount about eating a vegan diet is the requirement of a strong understanding of whole, high quality, plant-based foods -- foods stressed by T. Colin Campbell and others who continually educate us on this subject.

In order to be a "healthy vegan," whether you're cooking at home, eating out or buying prepared food at the grocery store, you should learn to recognize the best substitutes for the animal foods you're forgoing, and realize that "vegan" doesn't necessarily guarantee "healthy." Here are three common pitfalls that vegans run into and what you need to know to correct them, so if you do choose this lifestyle, you'll be making an informed and healthy choice.

#1: Highly Refined and Processed Oils

With butter and animal fats off limits, vegan diets primarily rely on oils for baking and cooking. Vegetable oils, such as canola, are ubiquitous among commercially prepared vegan foods. You probably wouldn't have guessed that a majority of these oils (unless labeled organic or cold-pressed) are refined -- for a variety of reasons, including shelf life and cost. They are heavily processed, as evidenced by the fact that there is a $50 billion-plus global industry dedicated solely to the manufacturing of cooking oils (companies such as ADM, Bunge and Monsanto are all key players). There is, however, a way to differentiate between healthier varieties of oils. The key lies in understanding how these oils are extracted from their whole food origins.

Let's take a closer look at the processing of canola oil, for example. The extraction process, generally speaking, consists of pressing, extracting and finally refining. Canola seeds are subjected to heat, mechanically pressed into cakes and then subjected to solvents -- such as hexane -- to fully extract the oil. This "crude" oil is then further refined to remove "impurities" to prolong shelf life, make it odorless and tasteless (degumming, neutralization, bleaching, deodorizing etc.). Refining also increases the smoke point of oils so that they can be used for high heat cooking. In the end, all of this results in an oil that loses a good deal of its nutritional goodness, making it less nutrient-rich. Trans fats may also result from these types of processing.

How to spot it: Look for canola oil, vegetable oil (usually a blend of refined oils), palm oil, sunflower oil and soybean oil in vegan mayonnaises and vegan butter substitutes, as well as prepared vegan foods, and baked vegan desserts. Canola oil, in particular, is used for a lot of baking and general cooking particularly because it is odorless, colorless, and tasteless.

Example: Vegan Mayonnaise
Canola oil, purified water, apple cider vinegar, brown rice syrup, soy protein, sea salt, lemon juice and mustard.

What to do instead: Look for the words "unrefined" and "expeller pressed" or "cold pressed" together with the name of these oils whenever possible. These unrefined and under-processed oils aren't exposed to chemicals, solvents or refining. They're made the old fashioned way, by mechanical pressing. And in the case of commodity crops like corn, soybean and canola-based oils, you'll also want to try to buy "organic."

#2 Hidden GMO Ingredients

Which brings me to the second pitfall for going vegan: GMO-based ingredients. The need for vegans to find substitutes for animal fats, milks and proteins, can increase the reliance on GMO crops such as soybeans (major protein source -- think tofu) and Canola. And to a certain extent, corn (sweetener -- think corn syrup) can also be found in some vegan foods. Currently, more than 90 percent of the soybeans and 85 percent of canola seed grown in the U.S. is GMO. The plants themselves are GMO, which then become the origins of their refined, derivative products, such as the oils, meal, milk and other industrialized ingredients that eventually become "fillers" in some vegan foods.

How to spot it: Read labels and look for derivations of these commodity crops that do not have the word "organic" in front of them, terms such as: isolate soy protein, soy lecithin, tofu, textured soy protein (TSP), soy flour, soy concentrates, soybean or corn oil, soy milk, partially hydrogenated corn or soybean oil, canola oil and corn syrup.

Example: Vegan Cream Cheese
Water, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, isolate soy protein, maltodextrin, tofu, non-dairy lactic acid, sugar, locust bean, guar and carrageenan gums, salt, vegetable mono and diglcerides and potassium sorbate (added as a preservative).

What to do instead: When buying or ordering foods with corn, soybean or canola -- or any of their derivatives -- try to purchase "organic". Better yet, cook your own food as much as you can and stay away from vegan packaged or boxed foods -- products that usually require longer shelf lives or preservatives!

#3 Sweeteners

Vegan desserts, such as vegan cupcakes, are becoming all the rage. But even though they omit the cream, butter and eggs, doesn't mean they skip -- or skimp, for that matter -- on the sweetener! Vegan cakes and pastries have just as much sugar as their non-vegan counterparts! You'll also tend to find that many milk substitutes such as almond, soy and rice milks come sweetened with some type of sugar.

Additionally, these sweeteners tend to be highly refined or processed too. White (table) sugar and confectioners sugar can be used, as well as corn syrup or corn syrup solids. And ingredients like Reb A (a small extract of a whole stevia leaf) and agave (high fructose content) are often used as well. Both are usually highly processed and far removed from more unrefined sweetener options like maple syrup and honey.

How to spot it: Again, you'll need to be aware of the sweetener that's used to make your food. Look for items such as confectioners sugar, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, Reb A, brown sugar (which is often simply white sugar coated with molasses) and agave on ingredient lists.

Example: Soy Milk
Ingredients: All Natural Soymilk (Filtered Water, Soy Flour), All Natural Evaporated Cane Juice, Calcium Carbonate, Natural Flavors, Sea Salt, Carrageenan, Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Reb A (Natural Stevia Leaf Sweetener), Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D2, Riboflavin (B2), Vitamin B12.

What to do instead: Choose "unsweetened" nut and rice milks, as well as vegan treats with as much unrefined sweeteners as you can. Don't be shy to ask what sweeteners were used in your vegan cupcakes and cookies and look for more unrefined ingredients such as molasses, maple syrup, date sugar, brown rice syrup and rapadura. Artificial sugars aren't the answer here; just being mindful of what's inside a vegan treat or vegan product is the goal! Because as desserts go, whether labeled vegan or not, that's just what they are: desserts! We're all hardwired to enjoy sweet, let's just do it in moderation and choose the most natural choice whenever possible!

Bottom Line For Vegans: It's not about pointing fingers at certain ingredients, finding a public health ingredient enemy number one (hat tip to Dr. David Katz) or demonizing soy or canola. The healthiest vegan diets are simply those based on high quality, minimally processed, whole foods.

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