Dairy-Free Decadence

Vegan doesn't have to be boring.

In a small kitchen in West Oakland, a batch of freshly glazed doughnuts cools on a baking rack. The rows of ring-shaped pastries glisten under coats of chocolate, cinnamon, and blueberry. It’s a tantalizing scene for any junk food lover, but there’s something missing from these doughnuts — and it’s not just their centers.

The cake-style doughnuts made by Pepple’s Donuts lack some of the quintessential ingredients of the traditional fried dessert. They’re largely organic and totally vegan, meaning they’re made without butter, egg, milk, or lard. While the term “vegan” may conjure images of a sparse diet of nuts and berries, Pepple’s doughnuts are part of a growing number of non-dairy options that dispel that minimalist image.

“Vegans want junk food, but so much junk food isn’t vegan — and the stuff that is, is just — junk,” said owner Josh Levine. “I wouldn’t even say that my doughnuts are junk food, because there’s nothing junky inside them.”

Pepple’s is a small but sizeable operation: The deliver about 500 doughnuts a day to coffee shops, restaurants, and grocery stores throughout the East Bay and San Francisco. They cost more than conventional coffee shop doughnuts — ranging from $1.75 to more than $2 each — but then, these aren’t your conventional doughnuts.

Levine’s vegan concoctions are in fact healthier than the treats found in many bakeries and stores, which are riddled with preservatives and high fructose corn syrup. He uses organic ingredients when he can — including fresh fruit from local grocers like Monterey Market and Berkeley Bowl — and estimates that the finished product is about 90 percent organic. Additionally, the doughnuts are sweetened with evaporated cane juice, which his girlfriend, pastry chef Rebecca Stevens, says gives people less of a sugar spike than cane sugar. While they make the usual flavors, like chocolate and maple glazed, they also make unusual flavors like lemon poppy seed, coconut, blueberry, and even one with cookie crumbles.

Still, the pastries are comprised of pretty much what one would expect from a dough mixture destined for the fryer. The flour is unbleached, the salt is kosher, and the oil is organic — and it’s all held together by soy lecithin, a binding alternative to eggs.

If there’s any question about the healthiness of these ingredients, the answer might be found in the sizzling sound of frying oil. “They’re vegan, yes,” said one of the company’s two bakers — aptly named George Baker — but he has no illusions. “It’s still fried dough. I mean, how good can that be for you?”

Pepple’s fries their doughnuts in palm oil, an animal- and cholesterol-free alternative to the pork-rendered lard once prevalent in doughnuts. You might be more hard-pressed to find a lard-laden doughnut today, as many bakeries (including chains like Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts) now use vegetable oils in their fryers. But even the healthier alternatives may contain the trans fats that result from hydrogenation, and which have been linked by the FDA to increased risks of high cholesterol and coronary heart disease.

Levine doesn’t deny that his doughnuts, despite being vegan, are still high in fat and sugar: “If it’s junk food, it’s the fanciest junk food you can get,” he said. And there’s no rule that a vegan pastry should be healthier than any animal-filled dessert.

That’s just fine with Mike Thorn, an Oakland resident and nineteen-year vegan, who eats a Pepple’s doughnut with his coffee every Sunday from Rockridge’s Cole Coffee. He went vegetarian at fifteen for animal rights and environmental reasons and cut out dairy shortly after.

Any health benefits of veganism — like a lower overall intake of saturated fats and cholesterol — were largely incidental to Thorn’s dietary decision. While he does eat a lot of vegetables, he still craves junk food. And after going nearly two decades without a doughnut, Thorn said he has no qualms about indulging in the fried food when he has the option.

“It’s a damn doughnut,” he said. “Deep-fry that shit and cover it in sugar. It’s not supposed to be good for you — it’s supposed to taste good.”

Thorn isn’t the only vegan whose animal-free diet choice hinges on more than his health. Dustin Hall, drummer for the now-defunct Bay Area band Gather (a politically charged straightedge hardcore band with all vegan members), said his choice to go vegan stemmed from a staunch opposition to animal abuse.

Hall said the absence of cholesterol and animal fats in vegan junk foods give them an instant advantage over their dairy-filled brethren, but that’s where it ends. “The biggest killer in all junk food is sugar,” he said. “Vegan snacks tend to have just as much sugar, which is why it’s still appropriately considered junk food.”

To be sure, a vegan diet does not guarantee an exclusively healthy or balanced diet. Many vegans still salivate over the foods that are but a memory on the tip of their taste buds.

“We all grew up on the typical, horrible American diet,” Hall said. “So, now that we’re vegan, we’re still not opposed to the flavor of a hot dog — or pizza, or ice cream, or candy bars. We’re opposed to the ingredients, not the flavor.”

Taking advantage of this demand, some local restaurants are incorporating vegan options — and in some cases becoming strictly vegan. Pizza Plaza in Oakland started off as a typical meat-and-cheese operation, until, in 2006, Hall’s vegan friend Aaron Zellhoefer asked the owner if he would make his pizza without cheese. He did.

Zellhoefer and the shop’s owner, Armin Ahmed, who was a vegetarian at the time, started an in-depth discussion about veganism. “I didn’t realize it in the beginning,” Ahmed said, “but I found out there are a huge number of vegans in the East Bay.”

A week or so after his fateful visit, Zellhoefer returned with a few blocks of Follow Your Heart “cheese” — a tofu-based cheese alternative. Ahmed tried it out on a pie — and it melted — along with his original menu plan. Soon after, he added a couple vegan items to his menu, and then a few more, until he phased out the meat altogether.

“I slowly stopped offering meat pizzas when I realized that I could make enough to support myself making just vegan and vegetarian pizzas,” Ahmed said. Thus, a new restaurant was born. Zellhoefer, Hall, and a troop of their vegan friends (including Hall’s band mates) began frequenting the spot, which had suddenly become a cheese-less haven.

“I felt real support from them,” Ahmed said. “Dustin’s band carried a message about veganism. I felt like I was making something that they, and all supporters of veganism, could relate to.” As a nod to his friends, Ahmed offers a “Gather Band Deal” — two pizzas with three toppings each and vegan cheese sticks. The shop also has a magazine rack filled with pamphlets on veganism.

Pizza Plaza may be the only East Bay pizzeria that’s exclusively vegan, but Lanesplitter, the popular pizza place and pub with spots in Albany, Berkeley and North Oakland, makes its own cheese substitute, dubbed “Notta Ricotta,” out of soy-based ingredients. Fellini, an Italian restaurant in Berkeley, also offers a soy-based cheese along with tofu and other vegan “meat” toppings.

Some people criticize diets based largely on imitation foods. Dr. John McDougall, a nutritionist and vociferous proponent of the virtues of low-fat vegetarian or vegan diets, published a newsletter, called “The Fat Vegan,” in which he decries the practice of substituting dairy and meat products, item for item, with processed vegan versions.

“People who have declared themselves ‘vegan,’ have said ‘no’ to eating all animal-derived foods,” he wrote. “At extraordinary personal costs, many of these guardians labor tirelessly to protect the welfare of all animals. Fat vegans, however, have failed one important animal: themselves.”

McDougall added, “Instead of animal fats and proteins, fuel becomes vegetable oils and isolated soy proteins. Calorie for calorie, in terms of nutrition, the fake food is no better, and in some ways worse, than the real thing.”

The isolated soy protein that McDougall frowns on is commonly used in imitation meats, including the “pepperoni” at Pizza Plaza, to add protein. According to the Soyfoods Association of North America, the isolate, which is derived from de-fatted soybeans, is high in amino acids, low in fat, and free of cholesterol, which qualifies it as an acceptable replacement for meat protein under the FDA’s standards.

Other imitation meats, like the Tofurkey sausages used by Pizza Plaza, contain tofu as a protein source. Actually, one serving of Tofurkey’s “Sweet Italian Sausage” has 29 grams of protein, or four grams more than is needed in a day.

For vegans who’ve eliminated many of the foods that were once staples or indulgences, the forbidden foods can become very alluring. Mel Chang, who blogs about her adventures with cooking and eating vegan food (veglicious.blogspot.com), acknowledged the fixation that some vegans develop over foods they no longer eat. “I think it’s easy for vegans to become obsessed with finding replacements for junk food because our whole society is obsessed with junk food,” she said. “When you’re suddenly not able to go down to the corner market and buy a hyper-processed, beef fat-filled snack cake, it becomes a welcomed challenge to recreate those foods that are comforting to us.”

The Emeryville chocolate maker Coracao Confections is another company that strives to meet that challenge. Coracao’s organic chocolates are not just vegan candy, but vegan candy that’s also free of refined sugars, hydrogenated oils, wheat, gluten, and even the soy that is prevalent in so many dairy-free snacks. Oh, and they’re raw — so absolutely no stoves are harmed in the process.

The chocolatiers behind Coracao Confections, Daniel Korson and Matthew Rogers, met while working as pastry chefs at raw foods restaurant Cafe Gratitude, where they also ran the chocolate department. The restaurant’s nut-based, naturally sweetened raw desserts helped inspire Coracao Confections’ similar approach to sweets.

Korson said he and his business partner were both big junk food eaters when they were younger, but both cut out the foods to focus on healthier eating. “But on some level I think we both missed them,” Korson said, “Compare that to some crunchy, raw, vegan date ball with flax seeds and somehow it just doesn’t have that same deep level of satisfaction or fun.”

The result of the chefs’ shared junk food deprivation: A collection of chocolates made with what they call “superfoods,” such as “antioxidant-rich” goji berries and acai. Another ingredient is raw cacao, which, according to Korson, is one of the most antioxidant-rich foods ever tested. The beans contain nutrients like magnesium, which contributes to bone and immune support. Zinc, iron, and chromium also crowd inside the uncooked beans.

Because the chocolates are uncooked, Korson says the vitamins present in their ingredients stay intact. Compared with the nullifying effect of the fryer, nothing in raw foods is broken down. “Think about it in terms of an apple,” Korson said. “An apple is a very healthy food. What happens if you roast that apple? All that vibrancy, flavor, and raw nutrition in its pure state has been lost.”

The sizable list of nutrients in Coracao Chocolates reads more like the label on a vitamin bottle than a candy bar wrapper. Until doctors start prescribing the chocolates as medicine, though, they still qualify on some level as sweets. After all, they are sweetened — albeit with agave nectar and coconut sugar, which are comparatively lower on the glycemic index than sweeteners like corn syrup and refined sugar.

And Coracao chocolates still contain calories, but while conventional chocolates get their fat from dairy ingredients like butter and cream, a variety of nuts constitute part of Coracao’s fat source. It’s clear by names like “almond coconut dream,” “brazil nut maca-malt cup,” and “macadamia coconut dream” that the candies are particularly nutty.

Nuts are an important source of unsaturated fat and protein for vegans. According to the North American Vegetarian Society, nutrient-rich calories in nuts can also effectively satiate someone’s appetite, so smaller amounts of food (like a piece of chocolate) are more likely to satisfy someone’s sweet tooth.

Yet eating too much of anything, even an antioxidant vegan superfood, isn’t healthy. Even the most unsaturated, uncooked, all-natural foods contain fats and calories that shouldn’t be over-consumed. Though Korson hails the healthiness of his chocolates — they’re actually about one-fourth of his diet, though he wouldn’t recommend that much chocolate to everybody — Korson says, “Just like everything else, it should be eaten in moderation. If you’re thirsty, water will save your life — but you can also drown in it if you’re not careful.”

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