Food researcher George Henderson on vegetarian meat substitutes, and other falsehoods

For 50 of its 300 pages, Simple Wholefoods features Instagrammable photos of author Sophie Steevens, her family, and surrounds, not counting those in which food is being presented, created or handled. The many Insta-ready family pics serve one useful function – they show us that the family (her partner is Kiwi pro surfer Ricardo Christie)  have healthy skin that tans well, something I’ve come to expect in people who avoid seed oils, eat antioxidant-rich foods, get enough omega-3, eat a bit of coconut oil or a similarly hard fat, and seek regular sunlight exposure (rather than bingeing on it on rare occasions).

Steevens became an author eight years ago when she was diagnosed with Grave’s disease, an autoimmune condition that causes the thyroid gland to become overactive. Instead of having the gland burnt or cut out and living on meds for the rest of her life, she decided to improve her diet and see what happened. “After avidly reading and researching, I decided to remove all toxic chemicals, gluten, and highly processed foods from my diet,” she writes in Simple Wholefoods. “I then went completely plant-based, with a rich emphasis on fruit and vegetables.”

But the terminology is shaky here. There’s a vegetarian meat substitute in New Zealand supermarkets that’s a mixture of gluten and soy protein with a little iron to colour it. It’s almost guaranteed to give you an autoimmune disease if you eat enough of it. Whereas unprocessed meats are pretty much free foods in elimination diets, because they so closely resemble the tissues in our own bodies that we always digest between meals.

Autoimmunity, while it may arise initially from a pathogen, and  its risk is usually dependent on genetics, is often triggered by ill-digested food components, or parts of certain bacteria thriving on the wrong mix of foods, which get into our bloodstream (because the gut lining has had its own problems) and end up in places where these alien structures, that sort-of resemble our own, can trick our immune cells into some friendly fire. Failure to derive adequate essential vitamins and minerals under these circumstances, including selenium (which is depleted by Covid infection) also predisposes to autoimmunity, while high dose vitamin D has an impressive record for autoimmune skin conditions.

There’s a vegetarian meat substitute in New Zealand supermarkets that’s a mixture of gluten and soy protein with a little iron to colour it. It’s almost guaranteed to give you an autoimmune disease if you eat enough of it

All this is I suppose controversial to a degree, simply because its environmental complexity – its holistic nature, so to speak – complicates the reductive testing of its individual parts, but it is not beyond understanding, and the clinician or author who understands can get results. On the other hand, everything that’s complex and individual in health lends itself to quackery, because personal guidance through such issues is such an expensive service, and simple heuristics (“holistic”, “alkaline”, “natural”, “toxic”, “plant-based” etc) are easy to corrupt. Even so, I’m going to defend them, because a perceptive and reasonably rational person can derive life-changing benefits from their judicious use without ever reading a scientific textbook.

For example, one of Simple Wholefoods’ heuristics is easily debunked – it’s simple to prove from physiology texts (Best and Taylor is my go-to) that pH is so well-controlled that foods rarely if ever alkalise or acidify the body, and besides, if bodily alkalinity was a health kick everyone would be chugging baking soda. Still, I’m going to defend it – a food tests as alkaline if it’s high in potassium and magnesium (e.g. fruits, roots, and other veges, plus fresh meats), minerals which are often in short supply, and acid if it’s low in these minerals and high in phosphorous (e.g. grains), which is not.

Garlic broccoli, chickpeas, red chilli and rocket with turmeric tahini yohgurt, by Sophie Steevens

Foods also contribute acid to the blood in the form of carbon dioxide (lost quickly in the breath unless you suffer from COPD), and burning a calorie of fat produces less CO2 than burning a calorie of carbohydrate. Thus, in these important cases the “alkaline” heuristic is consistent with the direction of health benefit shown by scientific methods, even if it is not the explanation.

(The most important exception to the alkaline heuristic is that the sulphur-amino acids in proteins leave an acid residue, yet sulphur-amino acids are essential for the detoxification and antioxidant processes in every cell.)

We suffer from an epidemic of scientism at present, a zealous faith in the scientific method among people with little knowledge of how it works in practice or its current limitations. To point out that a banana is made of chemicals, as the debunking voices out there loudly insist on behalf of the processed food industry, is to explain nothing about how the effects of the “1 large ripe banana” ( the base of several of Sophie Steevens’s delicious smoothie recipes)  might differ from some processed food made from what-have-you.

Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution; a dog can (in theory, though mine seems to be an exception) be killed by the onions or chocolate we eat every day. Saying that onions are made of chemicals, or that the dose makes the toxin, doesn’t begin to explain this difference.

The uselessness of the debunking community was obvious in the Covid-19 pandemic, because, in case you’ve forgotten, there were no vaccines for about a year. During that time debunkers set about discouraging people from eating well, losing weight, taking supplements, or doing anything else that might reasonably be expected to improve their survival when challenged with a novel infection. So, if one caught Covid, one was expected to take paracetamol – a drug that has never been tested for Covid and that plausibly has some potential for harm – and if one got worse, as well one might, go to an overloaded hospital and expect overworked doctors to fix you at risk to their own lives.

Nuts who scream “natural treatments are being suppressed!” aren’t exactly wrong

The debunkers only supported testing when they were offered drugs to test (so much for “everything is a chemical”). So, propositions like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin – which had really lacked much evidence to begin with – were tested to exhaustion in literally hundreds of separate trials. The prima facie most promising nutrients? We were assured that these were being tested. But it seems that there have been few trials of zinc and no completed trial of selenium, despite the consistent promise of meaningful effects for this trace mineral seen in epidemiological Covid studies and previous tests with other RNA viruses.

Vitamin D supplementation after infection was tested, because it was already a drug of sorts, and found to be beneficial, ditto with probiotics for household contacts, but somehow these findings were never passed over to the public. Except, for the most part, by random quacks, many of whom would turn to less healthy agendas once the Covid vaccines were developed.

It’s often said, “There is no alternative medicine. There is only scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine supported by solid data or unproven medicine, for which scientific evidence is lacking.” But obviously someone’s had their thumb on the scale when it comes to the search for this scientific evidence. Nuts who scream “natural treatments are being suppressed!” aren’t exactly wrong, even if they’re often using this line to promote some gnarly nostrum that should be suppressed, or an expensive proprietary version of a supplement that works best when it’s most affordable.


How can we know if a wellness heuristic is being applied beneficially, rather than being used to stoke some unhealthy prejudice against some perfectly good food, or sell us some quackish unnecessity?

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, or in the case of Simple Wholefoods the recipes for puddings, salads, mains and so on. Leaving aside the question of whether Simple Wholefoods, by itself, amounts to a nutritionally complete diet (most people will need to fit in the odd steak, egg, and cheese, especially if they can’t stand the supplemented yeast that’s the only source of B12 here), leaving aside the question of whether the book is in any way intended to be an auto-immune protocol – I’m quite sure it’s not, it’s just a well-laid out recipe book with a short but useful introduction and some necessary instructions – these are decent, healthy recipes, designed to look good and taste good.

Mint bounty pistachio slice, by Sophie Steevens

Her advice to replace wheat flour with besan (chickpea), almond and coconut flours may not give the same results in traditional baking, but it’s stepping up in the world in terms of both nutrition and its effect on your health, and the recipes make such ingredients work. The dessert section is especially impressive; I’ve long thought that the dessert section is the saving grace of the raw vegan diet. Coconut oil, nuts, and cocoa powder are great things to have in your diet, and coconut oil can go some way to compensate for a lack of animal fat. It seems incredible that the South Pacific’s largest health ministry is still at war with the coconut and  its products.

It’s known that coconut’s a perfectly healthy food in the Islands, even islands where taro doesn’t grow well and coconut makes up most of the diet. It’s also known that the replacement of traditional foods with refined starch and seed oils has resulted in a tsunami of type two diabetes and other metabolic diseases. Yet momentum starting from a position of mistrust of animal fats (which had its roots in the religious prejudices of the early nutritionists) has carried over into a suspicion of the traditional foods of our region.

The latest MOH dietary guidelines have nothing good to say about coconut and include this presumptuous explanation of its health effects: “When indigenous people consume coconut flesh and milk along with fish and vegetables, and they are also physically active, the coconut consumption is unlikely to put them at risk of cardiovascular disease. They are in a very different situation from people who consume coconut oil along with a typical western diet.” As if physical activity on the tiny atolls where taro (and most other vegetables) wouldn’t grow and the most coconut was eaten was ever decisively measured; as if people can’t eat fish and vegetables and be normally active in New Zealand.

Though coconut oil is certainly a different proposition nutritionally from whole or grated coconut, there have been many experiments  that predict it’ll be a sound choice, and it has a long history of use in countries like Sri Lanka and the Philippines. If there can be, in theory, such a thing as systemic bias  in the well-meaning and colour-blind area of public health, then this minimally and inconclusively researched advice to replace coconut and its products with grains and seed oils (two types of high-energy foods never eaten in the Pacific before colonisation ) is surely what it looks like in practice.

If plant-based recipes are your thing, Simple Wholefoods has 100 of them, perhaps not what I’d call a complete diet, but then few recipe books are. For people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like. I’m paraphrasing Muriel Spark’s tragicomic heroine Miss Jean Brodie. Miss Brodie was a snob, and meant it disparagingly, but I’m not and I don’t. The recipes are designed on sound enough principles. They’re also delicious.

Simple Wholefoods by Sophie Steevens (Allen & Unwin, $49.99), one of the year’s biggest-selling books, is available in bookstores nationwide.

George Henderson is one of many New Zealand music legends (he was the prime genius behind The Puddle) who has gone on to become an internationally-cited food researcher. Very well, the only one. He' currently...

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