Category Archives: Research

Vegan Flu Shots: A Guide

Flu shots can be a difficult topic in the vegan community. The internet has a lot of misinformation about vaccines in general, and flu shots in particular, which can make the topic controversial in the best of situations.

In a vegan context, the conversation is complicated by the fact that flu shots are generally made with eggs. This leads to heartache, as people have to choose between what’s best for their own and their family’s health, and being true to values that they have worked hard to live by. This can lead to motivated reasoning, where people may choose to believe that vaccines are ineffective or unsafe, rather than face the ethical dilemma.

I think it’s important to foster appreciation for science and objectivity within the vegan community, even when that means facing facts that we’re not wild about. Flu shots are a safe, effective technology, and we should seriously consider getting these vaccinations, even though they are generally not vegan.

Why should I get a flu shot?

Flu shots are associated with better performance in a broad array of health outcomes. Flu shots provide about 50% protection against getting the flu in any given year. (That is, vaccinated people get the flu half as frequently as those who are not vaccinated.) While this is less than the complete immunity given by some vaccinations, it still makes a meaningful difference to individual and community health.

The flu is particularly damaging to groups at high risk of flu complications, such as young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with various chronic diseases. (The CDC has a comprehensive list online.)

It’s important to recognize that vaccinations, flu and otherwise, are not a strictly personal decision. Your choice to vaccinate or not affects those you come into contact with, and society more broadly. Even if you are not at high risk of flu complications, some of those that you come into contact with may be. By getting a flu shot, you are helping to protect your community members.

Why aren’t flu shots vegan?

Influenza viruses only grow in animal tissue, which means that animal products are required to produce them. The standard method of producing vaccines involves growing the virus in fertilized eggs. The CDC explains:

These vaccine viruses are then injected into fertilized hen’s eggs and incubated for several days to allow the viruses to replicate. The virus-containing fluid is harvested from the eggs. For flu shots, the influenza viruses for the vaccine are then inactivated (killed), and virus antigen is purified. [1]

The final vaccine is the isolated antigen — the virus proteins that the body recognizes as foreign, and develops an immunity toward. It’s these proteins, rather than the virus itself, that results in immunity.

Are there any alternative methods of making flu shots?

Yes! This is an area where there has been a lot of recent progress, partly because the existing egg-based production system is slow and difficult to scale. Because the technology has changed so quickly, vegan communities may not be up to date on the new flu vaccines.

In 2012, a “cell-based” flu vaccine was approved. This vaccine strategy still uses eggs to grow an initial virus culture, but uses cultured animal cells to grow the the much larger amount of virus needed for vaccination. This avoids the majority of the egg use in the vaccine production process. At time of writing, there is only one cell-based flu vaccine in the US: Flucelvax. [1]

In 2013, a recombinant flu vaccine was approved. This strategy does not use eggs at all. Instead, the virus protein that triggers immune response is isolated, and genetically added to a virus that grows well in vitro on cultured insect cells. Once the virus has grown, the antigen is filtered out as usual, producing a vaccine. There is one recombinant flu vaccine approved in the US: FluBlok. Just last month, the FDA expanded its approval to cover all adults over 18 years old. (Previously it was approved for adults ages 18-49.) [1]

There continues to be a lot of research in this area, and I came across research toward plant-based recombinant flu vaccines while writing this post. It seems likely that vaccines will be more vegan-friendly in the future, in order to solve some of the technical limitations of egg-based vaccines.

So are these vegan?

Yes, more or less.

I’m comfortable calling the FluBlok vaccine vegan. I haven’t verified that its production uses no animal products, however this vaccine strategy does not require animal products fundamentally. Regardless whether it is strictly vegan, it is moving vaccines away from using eggs, which is something I’m happy to support.

I also think that Flucelvax worth supporting. Even though Flucelvax it is arguably not vegan (since it participates in the CDC process of delivering virus grown in eggs to vaccine manufacturers), the cell-based approach has different strengths and weaknesses compared to the recombinant approach, and this approach could easily lead to effective vegan vaccines in the future that could overcome potential weaknesses of the recombinant approach. (More on this below.)

I think that vegans should get flu shots, including conventional flu shots when vegan versions are not available or are not medically appropriate for them. Vaccines save lives, including the immunocompromised and those who cannot get vaccines for medical reasons. We can all help them by getting vaccinated. If you’re able to get one of the new vaccines, you can participate in moving the science forward toward vegan solutions.

Which flu shot should I get?

This information keeps changing, so check with the CDC for up to date information. I’m not a medical professional, but I’ll summarize the information I’ve found from the CDC and elsewhere, on some reasons to consider each vaccine type:

Recombinant / FluBlok

Adults 18 years of age or older can get FluBlok vaccines.

Since FluBlok contains only individually selected coating proteins from the flu vaccine, there is some concern that this vaccine strategy may be less effective. By contrast, if a vaccine contains whole virus particles (as in either conventional or cell-based vaccines), then your immune system can form antibodies to any of the virus’ proteins, rather than the selected few that recombinant vaccines contain. This may make this strategy more risky, so high-risk individuals may opt for other vaccine types.

Other considerations: This is a relatively new vaccine type, so we know the least about its efficacy. While the CDC says that many people with egg allergies tolerate even conventional vaccines, FluBlok is the only vaccine that contains no egg allergens.

I’m a reasonably healthy adult at low risk of flu complications, and I don’t have any young children in my household, so I chose this vaccine.

Cell-based / Flucelvax

Adults 18 years of age or older can get Flucelvax vaccines.

The cell-based vaccines should be equivalent to conventional vaccines, and are expected to be similarly effective. The only difference is how they are produced. They may be a good choice for adults who are at risk for flu complications, and are not comfortable with recombinant vaccines.

Cell-based vaccines are likely to have less egg allergen than conventional vaccines.

Conventional

Children from 6 months to 18 years of age should only get conventional flu shots. Children are at high risk of flu complications, and the newer flu vaccine types are not approved for them.

Conventional flu shots are a very well established and studied technology, so may also be a good choice for those at high risk for flu complications, or those who are not comfortable trying a newer type of vaccine.

How do you get a vegan flu shot?

I chose to get a FluBlok vaccine this year. It’s the newest and most high-tech vaccine, and I wanted to find out how difficult it would be to get.

I’m also excited by using recombinant genetic techniques to produce vaccines as a technology. I think this technology could do a lot of good for society (faster vaccine turnaround times, more efficient scaling of vaccine production), as well as removing animals from this sphere of medicine. This would be similar to how recombinant genetics were used to produce insulin from bacteria, instead of harvesting insulin from slaughtered animals.

Finding a clinic

Update: I’ve posted an updated guide to getting a vegan flu shot in 2015. Notably, Flublok can now be found in Target Pharmacies.

One widely available source of FluBlok vaccines is Passport Health. Passport Health is a chain of vaccination clinics that specialize in travel vaccines, all of which offer FluBlok given a few days notice. San Francisco has a Passport Health clinic, so I chose that.

More recently, I’ve learned that you can find clinics that offer FluBlok (and other vaccines) online at http://vaccine.healthmap.org/. To find FluBlok, go to the Vaccine Finder site, uncheck all the vaccine types, then check only “Recombinant Flu Shot” within “Flu”. Enter your address, and it will list clinics that have registered as carrying it.

According to Vaccine Finder, there are two additional clinics that carry FluBlok in SF: Pharmaca in Cole Valley, and Recharge Medical & Day Spa in Nob Hill.

Note that Passport Health is not found by Vaccine Finder, so you’ll have to check for Passport Health locations separately for now. FluBlok’s website also has a list of clinics that offer FluBlok by state, however this list seems to be out of date, and did not contain either clinic listed in Vaccine Finder, nor any Passport Health locations, so I don’t think that list is very useful. For the time being, you’ll have to do a few searches to find the FluBlok clinic nearest you.

Making an appointment (at Passport Health)

It took about a 10-15 minute phone conversation to schedule an appointment and go through their triage to determine whether getting a flu shot was appropriate.

Note that the triage questions are generic, and seem to be the same for all flu shots. Specifically, they will ask you about egg allergies. That doesn’t mean that FluBlok contains eggs, or that they’ll give you the wrong vaccine. It’s just on their list of flu shot questions to ask.

I scheduled an appointment for a few days out, since Passport Health orders FluBlok as needed, rather than keeping it onhand.

Once you schedule an appointment, there’s an online health information form to fill out, which takes another 10-15 minutes. Just basic health and medical background.

Office visit

In SF, the Passport Health clinic is in a shared office building, in the vicinity of Fisherman’s Wharf. (Near Pier 31, if that means anything to you.)

The clinician met me in a shared reception area, and led me through a maze of identical-looking office doors to the Passport Health office. A few more questions, and we were on our way.

FluBlok

What all the fuss was about

The shot is just like any other flu shot. It makes your arm sore for a while, but otherwise is fine. The clinician let me take some pictures, and was accommodating and friendly, if slightly confused as to why I wanted photos of the vaccine bottle.

What does it cost?

The appointment, including the FluBlok vaccine, cost $30 total. That price seems to be very consistent online. I didn’t bother with submitting it to insurance, so I don’t know what the odds are of getting it covered.

Final thoughts

Medicine in general is not fully vegan. I recommend following medical advice in general, even when the medicine isn’t vegan, until vegan versions are available. For young children, this means getting conventional flu shots until the alternative preparations are approved for all age groups.

However it’s exciting to see flu shots making this transition away from egg-based production. The new high-tech immunizations could have real benefits beyond the vegan community. They take less time to develop and produce at scale, and could respond more quickly to mutations, or to new strains as they emerge.

We can participate in pushing medicine forward in this direction by opting for the newer flu shot preparations. The more people get the vaccine, the more safety data we gather, and the more trust we can have in the safety and efficacy of the new process. I’m happy to have participated in that process, in a small way.

This is also a good example of using genetic modification to solve a problem (growing virus antigens for a vaccine) that couldn’t otherwise be solved without chicken eggs. This is a great use of recombinant genetics, and is an example where the vegan community could embrace this technology.

So get a flu shot! If you’re a healthy adult, consider getting FluBlok or Flucelvax if they are available. Otherwise, just get a regular one. There’s a good chance that vegan flu shots will be widely available in the next few years.

Epilogue: Why recombinant vaccines might be more effective

Recombinant vaccines might overcome some of the limitations of the egg-based vaccine production process. To illustrate this, let’s consider the 2012-2013 flu season.

Since the flu mutates quickly, researchers have to make educated guesses about which strains will break out ahead of time, and prepare a vaccine for those strains. Sometimes they get this wrong, which is why the flu shot is only about 50% effective.

In the 2012 flu season, an interesting situation emerged where the flu vaccine was less than 50% effective (and only 9% effective in seniors), yet the scientists had guessed correctly — 90% of flu viruses were a match for the vaccine. So why wasn’t the vaccine working?

The main flu virus that season was an H3N2 strain, and H3N2 flu viruses do not grow effectively in chicken eggs. To get flu viruses to grow well in eggs, immunologists “reassort” the virus they want to target with flu virus strains they already have that are known to grow quickly in eggs. This involves infecting eggs with both viruses at the same time, and filtering out viruses that don’t have the target virus’s antigen proteins. (A more detailed discussion of this process can be found here.)

It appears that the 2012 vaccine lost its efficacy during this reassorting process, resulting in an H3N2 vaccine component that did not protect against that year’s H3N2 strain.

Either a recombinant approach (like FluBlok) or a cell-culture growth process (like Flucelvax) would not require adapting flu viruses to grow quickly in chicken eggs, and should not be vulnerable to this mode of failure. Cell-culture processes (like Flucelvax) might be the most resilient to this type of failure, since it does not require modifying wild viruses at all, unlike both recombinant vaccines and conventional “reassorted” vaccines.

Post-epilogue: This year’s vaccine

The 2014 flu vaccine is having difficulty for another reason: the wild virus has mutated, and it would take too long to manufacture a new vaccine. Faster vaccine production technologies (including recombinant or cultured production methods) may help us respond more quickly to virus mutations in the future.

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, How Influenza (Flu) Vaccines Are Made. (Accessed Nov 4th, 2014)
  2. Nature (News), Mutations explain poor showing of 2012 flu vaccine. (Accessed December 28th, 2014)
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Getting omega-3’s: Science, texture and allergies

As I explained in a previous post, it’s important to have a reliable source of omega-3’s.

It took me some research and experimentation to find a cheap, hassle-free source of vegan omega-3’s that worked for me, so I wanted to share my findings. Since plant-based omega-3’s are in the form of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), I’ll refer to vegan omega-3’s as ALA throughout this article.

What I was looking for

I wanted an easy source of ALA that I could add to my diet without a lot of change. I wanted to stick to a form that was fairly cheap, reasonably shelf stable, and which research supported as containing absorbable ALA. The ratio of omega-6’s to omega-3’s may be important, so I wanted a food that had few omega-6’s along with the omega-3’s. Finally, I have oral allergies which, while not life threatening, make many raw foods very unpleasant to eat, and possibly unsafe. I’d have to stick to a form of ALA-containing food that did not aggravate my allergies.

The contenders

I wanted a minimal dietary intervention, so while walnuts contain ALA, the ALA in walnuts is not very concentrated. You’d have to eat a lot of nuts to meaningfully boost your omega-3 levels, which would be a substantial dietary change. Similarly, tofu and soy products have ALA, soy ALA is also not very concentrated, and soy contains 10 times as much omega-6’s as omega-3’s.

The most concentrated sources of omega-3 fatty acids are flax seeds. About two teaspoons of flax seeds gives the American Heart Association’s recommended daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids.[4] Chia seeds are also a concentrated source. These are both promising candidates, so I focused on these.

ALA availability

The first challenge is that ALA from whole flax seeds is not absorbed in digestion. This means that even though there is a lot of ALA in flax seeds, your body will get very little ALA from them. Generally I found that nutrition information on the internet to be in agreement with the research here — to get ALA from flax seeds, you have to grind them or process them into flaxseed oil.

Interestingly, I found internet nutrition information to disagree with the research I could find on chia. Internet nutrition advice suggested that chia seeds, unlike flax, do not have to be ground for their ALA to be absorbable. However the only human study I found disagreed with this, and found that ALA was only absorbed from ground chia seeds, just like flax.

Ok, so we’ll have to grind them. No problem. A coffee grinder or a Vitamix will do the trick.

Texture

I wanted to incorporate flax or chia seeds into foods that I was already eating. Since it’s recommended to take flax and chia with lots of water, I wanted to use wet foods that I already eat frequently — oatmeal and lentil soup.

The problem is that when exposed to water, flax and chia seeds form a gel-like texture that I’ve heard compared poetically to pudding, or less poetically to mucous. While I find the texture of whole chia seeds pleasant when added to oatmeal or soup (although it took some getting used to), I find the texture of ground chia or ground flax much less appealing when added to wet foods. Unlike whole chia, there are no crunchy bits to break up the gel mush.

I’m curious if I’m alone here, because I couldn’t find much discussion online about avoiding gross textures with these seeds in their recommended wet form.

(I’ll note that some people suggest using flax meal as an egg replacer in baked goods, which avoids the texture issue. I don’t do much baking, I don’t want my daily omega-3 regimen to be so labor-intensive, so I didn’t find this to be a realistic strategy for me. If you bake a lot anyway, this could be a great strategy!)

Oral allergies

One last constraint, although one that only affects 1% of people: I have an oral allergy to raw flax seeds. (I have a similar sensitivity to chia, but I haven’t looked into it in as much depth.) This means that I can only consume flax and chia seeds that have been heated.

Roasted ground flax

I decided to try roasting flax seeds to solve the allergy problems, then grinding the roasted seeds to improve ALA digestibility. This was delicious, and surprisingly, did not have any effect on the texture of oatmeal or lentil soup. It adds a pleasant roasted flavor to these foods. So far so good. So does the research support this as a source of ALA?

Since ground flax seed is already established as an effective source of ALA, I was mostly concerned with whether or not roasting the flax seeds, grinding them, and then reheating them (in my case, adding them to oatmeal or soup) would compromise the ALA. Flaxseed oil is said to degrade when exposed to heat, so I was curious if the same would happen to my roasted flax seeds.

I found a great paper on roasted ground flax! The researchers roasted and ground flax seeds, then baked cookies with the roasted ground flax seeds. They then analyzed the cookies for ALA content, and found them to contain ALA as expected. (I’m in favor of any research paper that has a “Evaluation of cookies” section.) They even tested cookies that were stored at room temperature for 90 days to measure shelf stability. They found that the ALA degraded only slightly over 90 days at room temperature.[1]

Another study tested heating whole and ground flax seeds, as well as flaxseed oil at 178°C (350°F) for 90 minutes, and found the ALA in whole flax seeds to decrease by 3.4%, while the ALA in ground flax seeds and flaxseed oil lost 6-7% of ALA.[2] This is much better than I expected, especially considering that typical flaxseed roasting times are on the order of 15 minutes — 1/6th of the time used in the study. This study arguably supports cooking whole flax seeds and then grinding them, rather than grinding them first, although since we’re talking about a 3% difference, it doesn’t really matter.

These studies did not measure absorption, but a third study demonstrated that ALA from baked goods made from milled flax is absorbed in digestion.[3]

Considering all of this, I think there is good evidence that roasted ground flax seed is an effective source of ALA.

Recipe

Spread 1 cup of flax seeds on a baking sheet, then bake for 10-15 minutes at 350°F, or until fragrant.

Flax seeds hot from the oven.

Grind the roasted seeds in a coffee grinder or high-speed blender.

The ground roasted flax seeds take about 30% more space than the seeds did before blending.

Ground flax.

The roasted flax should be shelf-stable at room temperature, either whole or ground.

You could also grind the flax first, and then roast it. Both should be effective sources of ALA, but note that ground (raw) flax is annoying to work with. It tends to clump together in the presence of any moisture, and its tendency to form a gel when wet makes it difficult to clean out of blenders, etc. If you have a strainer on your sink drain, the flax gel will stop it up. When possible, roast first.

Add 1 tsp to foods, twice a day (so 2 tsp / day total).

Flax-enriched oatmeal

Here are some pictures of roasted ground flax in oatmeal. I may have used 2-3 tsp of flax here to illustrate how it disappears.

Now you see it ...

Now you see it …

… now you don’t. (The same, after stirring.)

There you have it!

Super easy, and cheap. I roasted 2 cups of flax a while ago, and it’s lasted me months.

Epilogue

Spreadsheet

Just for kicks, I made a spreadsheet illustrating the various omega-3 approaches I considered.

You’re welcome.

References

[1] Rajiv J et al. Rheology, fatty acid profile and storage characteristics of cookies as influenced by flax seed (Linum usitatissimum). J Food Sci Technol. Oct 2012; 49(5): 587–593. doi: 10.1007/s13197-011-0307-2 (via Pubmed)

[2] Chen ZY et al. Oxidative stability of flaxseed lipids during bakingJ Am Oil Chem Soc. 1994; 71:629–632. doi: 10.1007/BF02540591 (via DeepDyve)

[3] Austria JA et al. Bioavailability of alpha-linolenic acid in subjects after ingestion of three different forms of flaxseedJ Am Coll Nutr. 2008 Apr; 27(2):214-21.

[4] There is no RDA for omega-3’s, so I have to use 3rd party recommendations here — in this case, from the American Heart Association. In fairness, the AHA recommends fish, which contain DHA and EPA, rather than ALA, which plant-based sources of omega-3’s provide. I think an algae-based DHA supplement may be wise for vegans, or arguably oysters, if that is consistent with your ethics.

Can flax seeds cause oral allergy syndrome?

While researching a post on vegan sources of omega-3’s, I noticed that there is almost no information on the internet about whether flax seeds can cause of oral allergy syndrome.

Oral allergy syndrome (OAS) occurs when an allergy (typically a pollen allergy) causes an allergic response to a similar protein in a plant food. Oral allergies vary in severity, although in my case they are just a cause of irritation — itching around the mouth and throat, and indigestion. Oral allergies are typically only triggered by raw foods, as heating often denatures the allergen, resolving the allergy.

Oral allergies are often diagnosed by having reactions to well-known common oral allergy foods (such as those on this list) that is resolved by cooking the foods. I have been diagnosed with oral allergy syndrome, and I react to bananas, almonds, melons, carrots, and occasionally pears or apples — these are all common OAS foods.

However I have identical symptoms to raw flax seeds, which I’ve never seen mentioned in lists of oral allergy foods. Is this really the same thing? If so, am I the only one? I wanted to research this to see if my flax sensitivity could be an oral allergy.

The research

I was able to identify only one study of flax seed allergic sensitivity that tried to distinguish true flax allergies from crossover oral allergy syndrome.[1] This was a French study made up of a mix of allergic (one food or respiratory allergy) and non-allergic people.

The study found only two cases of true flax allergy in the 1317 people, compared with 75 people who were sensitive due to cross-reaction (more or less equivalent to oral allergies). Since allergic people were overrepresented in this study, the rate in the general population would be even lower. The authors project that about 1 in 6000 people (in France) are allergic to flax seeds, whereas 0.5% to 1% of the population have cross-reactive sensitivity only to raw flax seeds.[1]

That is, not only can flax seeds cause oral allergy syndrome, but the vast majority of flax seed sensitivity is caused by OAS-like crossover allergies.

The takeaway

First, some caveats: Since so few cases of flax seed allergies have been studied, it’s hard to definitively say how that allergy presents. We could also expect the rate of flax allergies to vary between regions because of different levels of environmental and dietary allergens. This study was conducted in France, and I’m not aware of another study taking place elsewhere. Finally, while rare, there have been cases of life-threatening anaphylaxis caused by flax seeds, so please talk to a doctor if you might be allergic to flax seeds!

That said, this study suggests that flax seed sensitivity can be caused by oral allergy syndrome, and in fact the vast majority of people with flax seed sensitivity — 97% — have OAS-like crossover allergic reactions, rather than a true allergy.[2]

If you react to raw flax seeds, but can eat cooked flax without irritation, you’re not crazy. You are probably among the estimated 1% of people who have an oral allergy syndrome sensitivity to uncooked flax seeds.

Citations

[1] Fremont S, et al. Prospective study of sensitization and food allergy to flaxseed in 1317 subjects. Eur Ann Allergy Clin Immunol. 2010 Jun;42(3):103-11. PMID: 20648772.

[2] Authors project a 1 in 6000 rate of flax allergies compared to a 0.5 to 1% rate of flax cross-sensitivity.[1] Ratio = (0.5 / 100) / (1/6000) = 0.5 / (1 / 60) = 0.5 * 60 = 30. Percentage = 100 / 30 = 3.33% (96.66%). If we use the 1% rate, we get 1.66% (98.33%). 97% is a conservative intermediate.

Why vegans should care about omega 3’s

There’s some confusion about the importance of omega-3’s in a vegan diet. On the one hand, vegans tend to eat fewer omega-3’s than diets that include animal foods, and have higher ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. On the other hand, vegans tend to have lower levels of the diseases that omega-3’s are often cited as preventing (heart disease, cancer, blood pressure, inflammation).

I think that vegans (and vegetarians) should make an effort to include omega-3’s in their diet for a few reasons:

  • This is a conservative choice, as vegan omega-3 levels are lower than that of other healthy diets, and omega-3’s may have protective effects.
  • Pescetarians sometimes outperform vegans in epidemiological studies. Omega-3’s are usually proposed as an explanation. (Some of this effect may be caused by B12 deficiency among vegans who do not supplement B12.)
  • High ALA intake (the omega-3 fatty acid found in plants) is associated with over a 50% reduction in heart disease rates in multiple studies.
  • There are (inconsistent) studies that suggest that LDL-lowering diets (but not LDL-lowering drugs) may be associated with higher levels of mental health problems. Some researchers suspect that lower levels of omega-3’s may explain this.
  • Ex-vegans sometimes cite mental health issues as reasons they changed their diet. Even though some may be playing this up, we should take their claims seriously, and look out for ways to improve mood-altering aspects of our diet.

It’s worth noting that plant foods do not contain DHA or EPA, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. There is good evidence that ALA (the common vegan omega-3 fatty acid, found in flax seeds, chia seeds, canola oil, walnuts, etc.) is converted efficiently to EPA, so I’m not convinced that vegans need to be concerned about EPA specifically, and I’ll focus on DHA.

DHA is important in neurological development, especially in prenatal and early childhood development, and in old age. Breast milk from vegan mothers contains less than half the DHA than that of omnivore mothers. Difference in DHA intake may explain some of the subtle ways in which breastfed children tend to outperform formula-fed children. (Note: some formulas contain DHA now, and you can always add supplemental DHA if breastfeeding is not an option.)

Higher DHA levels also correlate with lower rates of neurodegenerative disease like dementia, and vegetarians have less DHA than non-vegetarians. I think we should pay attention to this, even though vegetarians have less dementia than non-vegetarians. The rate could be even lower for DHA-supplementing vegans.

Recommendations

For comprehensive recommendations about omega-3’s, see VeganHealth.org.

The summary is this — until we know more, it would be wise for vegans to take a vegan DHA supplement a few times a week. If you’re an elderly, pregnant or breastfeeding vegan, then a daily supplement is probably best. I’d also recommend supplementing infants, especially if they are not breastfed.

It is also probably wise to include some dietary source of omega 3’s (which will be ALA for plant foods) on a daily basis.

I’ll follow up with more about how I’ve gone about doing the latter myself.

Is Benecol vegan?

I happened across Benecol Spread and Benecol Light Spread in a grocery store recently, and wondered if it was vegan. On the one hand, the ingredients appeared to be vegan at first glance. On the other, I’d never heard it mentioned on vegan cooking forums.

It took several emails with McNeil Nutritionals LLC, the makers of Benecol, to establish any clarity on the issue. I’m posting what I learned here, in case others have the same question.

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What happened to all the soy yogurt?

Update: See Soy Yogurt Crisis: 2015 Edition.

You’re not crazy, there’s no soy yogurt anywhere. (Ok, almost none, in the US.)

I was entirely unaware of this until I needed some for baking a few weeks ago.

No problem, I’ve found soy yogurt in grocery stores nearby whenever I’ve needed it. First store — no soy yogurt. Second store — same. At a third store, I asked a clerk for help, certain I must have missed it. After some searching, he hands me almond yogurt. “Look — it says soy free.” I explain that I’m looking for the opposite — “full of soy”.

Finally I went to a fourth store, where I’m certain I’ve bought soy yogurt in the past. Still nothing. The clerk there told me that there’s a national shortage — “You can’t get it anywhere. There was only one factory in the US, and it’s been shut down.”

I bought some almond yogurt and used that instead, but I was curious how this could have happened.

Here’s what I’ve found out:

WholeSoy & Co explains that the facility that makes and packages their yogurt (a “co-packer” in industry terms) abruptly shut down, giving them only three days notice. They had been in the process of switching to another co-packer, and shipped some yogurt from the new facility, but ran into some problems, and the new facility may not be able to keep up with demand once it’s operational anyway.

They are now working on building their own facility, and hope to be back in production in the fall.

I can’t confirm what I was told — that all soy yogurt in the US was made by one facility.

It seems that Silk only currently manufactures soy yogurts with fruit, which are unsuitable for baking. It’s not clear to me if the supply chain for those products has been affected.

I’ve found at least one other vegan yogurt that has a very similar story to WholeSoy. Amande, an almond yogurt brand, explains that their producer informed them in April that they were shutting down, again with just 3 days notice. It seems likely that this was the same facility that WholeSoy was using.

There also seem to be very few soy yogurt producers, as many brands have recently discontinued their soy yogurt products.

Wildwood discontinued its soy yogurts between December 2012 and March 2013. No supply chain issues are cited in emails from the company.

So Delicious no longer lists soy yogurt on its products page, so these also seem to be discontinued.

Trader Joe’s brand soy yogurt has allegedly been affected by the shortage. I can’t confirm that their soy yogurt is a rebranding of WholeSoy yogurt, however the nutrition data for “Trader Joe’s Organic Vanilla Soy Yogurt” is identical to that of WholeSoy’s vanilla flavor. The plain flavor is not described as being organic, which I would think rules out WholeSoy as a producer.

It seems to be coincidence that the factory closure follows a period of consolidation of the soy yogurt market, where many brands of soy yogurt were discontinued, and mainstream non-dairy yogurt brands abandoned soy in favor of almond and coconut yogurt, leaving us without a soy yogurt supplier for the time being.

Strange times in the world of soy yogurt. For more, see the following links: