A fresh look at vegan food in hospital catering

Dietitian Heather Russell, from the Vegan Society, explains why well-planned vegan diets can support healthy living in people of all ages

Nutrition is a fundamental part of hospital care. This setting can present a number of challenges for caterers, including limited resources and a wide range of dietary requirements. Today, food sustainability is also recognised as an important issue. From nutritional, environmental and social perspectives, the potential of vegan food should not be underestimated as there are many benefits of providing a vegan-friendly service.

Vegans avoid the use of animals as far as is possible and practicable. It’s important to be aware that veganism is a belief system, not just a diet. Someone who follows a vegan lifestyle will seek to use products that do not contain animal ingredients, and have not been tested on animals.

Freedom of thought, belief and conscience is protected by human rights legislation, and this includes veganism. It is necessary to provide care in a way that respects equality and diversity. In the words of the Care Quality Commission, ‘when a person has specific dietary requirements relating to moral or ethical beliefs…these requirements must be fully considered and met’.

A vegan diet excludes all animal products, including meat, fish, milk, eggs and honey. The Vegan Society is working with the British Dietetic Association to promote the message that well-planned vegan diets can support healthy living in people of all ages. It’s recommended that everyone in the UK uses a vitamin D supplement during autumn and winter as a minimum. Vitamin D3 from lichen and vitamin D2 are vegan-friendly. Vegans also need to ensure reliable intakes of vitamin B12, iodine and selenium, and one option is to take a vitamin and mineral supplement designed for vegans like The Vegan Society’s VEG 1.

Hospital Catering for All
The Vegan Society’s Hospital Catering for All campaign seeks to promote the benefits of a strong vegan offering, and help improve the standard of care experienced by vegan inpatients. Faced with the logistical challenge of using limited resources to cater for a wide range of dietary requirements, it’s helpful to provide meals that are suitable for most people.

Vegan options tick this box because they can be enjoyed by the following groups: vegans, vegetarians and people who eat meat and fish; those trying to limit their consumption of animal products; those who require Kosher food; those who require Halal food (if free from alcohol); and people with allergies to milk and/or eggs (if free from these allergens).

The Vegan Society asks caterers to consider featuring vegan options on main menus, making them available to everyone. It should be highlighted that vegan dishes can enhance a caterer’s overall offering of vegetarian food. In 2016, it was estimated than over half a million people in Britain eat a vegan diet, and nearly half of vegetarians would like to reduce their consumption of animal foods, equating to another half a million people. Vegan options provide greater variety for vegetarians, who may grow tired of cheese and eggs during a prolonged hospital admission.

In addition to hot meals, it’s important to ensure that certain vegan staples are readily available. What would a vegan breakfast be without fortified plant milk and dairy-free spread? Potentially, a big disappointment! Soya milk is regarded as the most nutritious alternative to cows’ milk because the protein quantity and quality is similar.

Sustainable catering
Growing food for human consumption is considered to be an efficient use of land, crops and water, and vegan diets have been associated with the lowest emissions of carbon dioxide. The Vegan Society’s Plate Up for the Planet campaign has been raising awareness of the environmental benefits of veganism.

The recent Grow Green II report, written by the New Economics Foundation and commissioned by The Vegan Society, calls for an increase in the amount of legumes grown in Britain, and served in public sector canteens. Embracing this approach could help NHS catering to be a flagship of sustainable procurement. Faced with the challenge of tackling climate change and the need for greater sustainability in all aspects of our lives, organisations like Medact and Humane Society International (HSI) are also taking an interest in the role of hospital food. There is certainly more that we can do to live the values of NHS Sustainability Day every day.

Medact’s report about hospital food contains good arguments for strengthening vegan food offerings. It encourages a shift towards more sustainable hospital menus, including a reduction in meat and dairy, and an increase in plant foods. The environmental benefits of offering legumes as protein sources are highlighted. Overall, this approach could help catering services to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, as part of their hospital’s Sustainable Development Management Plan, and help them to meet the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering, which incorporate sustainability.

HSI are helping the catering industry to incorporate more plant-based menu options. As part of their Forward Food initiative, they are able to offer culinary training to hospital catering teams.

Vegan business
Veganism is one of today’s fastest growing lifestyle movements, so demand for vegan-friendly products and services is increasing. Although young people are driving the growth of veganism, in 2016, 14 per cent of vegans were older than 65 years.

From a business perspective, The Vegan Society is striving for better labelling of products. For example, we encourage any businesses manufacturing vegan-friendly meals to apply for the Vegan Trademark. This is a beacon for attracting customers seeking to strengthen their vegan food offering. Don’t forget that vegan meals can be economical as well as environmentally-friendly. For example, beans, chickpeas and lentils are both cheap and sustainable sources of protein.

Health-promoting hospital food
Recently, there has been growing interest in the area of workplace well-being, and the NHS is getting on board. For instance, there are now financial incentives for English trusts to look after the health of their employees. Since the NHS is one of the biggest employers in the UK, there is huge potential to improve public health.

We should bear in mind that the latest version of the Eatwell Guide encourages increased consumption of plant foods. Making healthy vegan options available to staff, visitors and patients can help them to boost their intakes of fruit, vegetables and fibre, and limit their intake of cholesterol-raising saturated fat.

Vegan hospital menus often carry plenty of healthy eating options, but lack nourishing main meals and puddings that can help to meet the needs of people who are nutritionally vulnerable. The Vegan Society is keen to tackle this inequality by raising awareness of the full potential of plant-based nutrition.

Here are some tips for caterers and manufacturers: vegan-friendly white sauce, pastry, dumplings, potato wedges, roast potatoes, Bombay potatoes and creamy Caribbean, Thai and South Asian curries are great for people with higher nutritional requirements; some hospitals operate peanut-free and nut-free catering systems, but for those that don’t, peanuts and nuts are valuable sources of calories and protein; use of soya products, such as tofu, mince, sausages and meat-free balls, can help to hit higher protein targets for meals, and the quality of soya protein is similar to that of animal products. Also, some Quorn products now carry the Vegan Trademark; beans, chickpeas, lentils, soya mince and tofu are easy to chew, and, therefore, valuable easy eating options; vegan-friendly sponges, crumbles and fruit pies can be served with soya custard or dessert, ensuring that nourishing puddings are available to vegans. Vegan-friendly fortified jelly and rice pudding are a couple of other examples; and don’t forget about snacks and drinks. Many calorific biscuits and hot chocolate powders are vegan-friendly, and soya yoghurts or desserts boost protein intakes.

- Demand for vegan-friendly products and services is increasing.
- Vegan hospital food is inclusive and sustainable, and can be cost-effective too – could your service or company benefit from strengthening its offering?
- Making vegan options available to staff, visitors and patients can help them to boost their intakes of fruit, vegetables and fibre, and limit their intakes of cholesterol-raising saturated fat.
- Hospitals need to provide higher calorie and protein vegan options suitable for people who have raised nutritional requirements.

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