A Supposedly Healthy Vegan Treat Landed Me In The ER

A hospital visit wasn’t what I signed up for when I went vegan.

There are a few misconceptions floating around about veganism, and my favorite is embodied in something a friend said to me recently about his own vegan diet.

He was talking about how irritated he gets when people get holier than thou about being vegan, as if it somehow makes them inherently better and healthier than anyone else, which he punctuated by saying, “Potato chips are vegan, you know.”

Certainly not every brand and every flavor, but enough of them are, and his point was pretty clear: there’s a lot of junk food out there that’s perfectly acceptable for vegans to eat. Sour Patch Kids, Hershey’s chocolate syrup, Fritos – all vegan friendly. And of course eating too much of one thing is never a good idea for your body; bodies need a variety of foods from different caloric sources to be well balanced. And what that balance is differs from body to body.

Still, some people insist that eating vegan food is inherently healthy. Which is why it amused me to see a vegan cupcake truck at the farmer’s market near my office in Houston, Texas, a few years ago. It always had ridiculously long lines and I’d always heard fantastic reviews about their products – I’m just not the kind of person to wait in line for an hour for a cupcake.

So when I came out on a late lunch break and saw only two people in line, I thought surely this must be a sign from the gods. In the line I went, and I picked up a couple of flavors to bring back to my desk. I didn’t eat much of either of them – it was towards the end of the day so they only had a couple of odd flavors left, neither of which I liked very much. I chalked up my not liking them to that, tossed them in the garbage bin and didn’t give them a second thought.

Until the next day when my entire body broke out in red lumps.

Now, for people who have had allergies all their life, this may not be a freak out incident. But as someone who has never had an allergic reaction before, I was convinced I was dying of some kind of zombie plague. I took the day off work and rushed to a private ER, an urgent care facility that my insurance covered.

A few minutes later, I was sitting on a cold table as my doctor asked me a bunch of questions about what I’d been exposed to that was different to my usual routine in the last 24 hours. The only thing I could think of were those supposedly heavenly cupcakes.

A nasty rash wasn't what I signed up for when I bought my supposedly healthy vegan cupcakes.

A nasty rash wasn’t what I signed up for when I bought my supposedly healthy vegan cupcakes.

I eventually figured out there’s an ingredient used as a substitute in vegan baked goods that makes my body extremely upset in this way every time I eat it, and to this day I’ve yet to pin down exactly what it is. I know I’m fine with bananas, so when those are used as a substitute I’m a-ok. And applesauce is fine, along with a lot of other swap-outs. Where things get hazier for me are the less natural foods. Not that unnatural foods are bad – without artificial sweeteners diabetics would have a pretty bad time of things – but I’m less likely to have eaten that particular combination of chemicals before, so they could well be what set off the reaction.

And that’s the problem with making food substitutes without warning people in advance. You have no idea what they may do to someone’s body.

Someone who’s lactose intolerant doesn’t need to bite into something and find a surprise wad of cheese any more than someone who can’t or has chosen not to eat beef shouldn’t find out the hard way their vegetable soup was made with chicken stock, and someone with a nut allergy shouldn’t find surprise almond milk in their morning oatmeal.

Sure, the onus is also on the person with an allergy to be diligent about what they eat, but if I’m allergic to bananas I may not think to ask if a chocolate cake has banana in it. It usually doesn’t. So if you’ve used it as a substitute, let people know before they eat it. Or at least label it as vegan chocolate cake so that person with a banana allergy has the opportunity to say “Hey, I know bananas are used as a substitute for eggs sometime – are there any bananas in here?” Otherwise their day could end pretty badly.

If my potatoes were fried up in bacon fat, I’d make sure my vegetarian and vegan friends knew before they bit into what they may have otherwise assumed was a totally safe food to eat. Extending the same courtesy when serving up food that has substitutes you wouldn’t usually expect is just as important.

Image via tumblr.com.

Comment: Do you agree people should disclose what ingredients are in something they’ve made before they share it with others?