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Vegan Cheese: What you need to know

by Georgina 8 minutes read

Last updated: 14 Sep, 2023

There’s no shortage of dairy-free cheese selections now, from hard to soft, grated to sliced, flavoured to replicate feta, cream cheese or camembert, the possibilities for vegan cheeses are endless. But what actually is it and how does it differ from regular dairy cheese?

What is it?

Where cheese is traditionally made from cow, goat, sheep or even donkey milk. Vegan cheese uses non-dairy alternatives as its base:

  • Soy
  • Coconut
  • Tree nuts and seeds (cashews, almonds, pine nuts and more)
  • Flour (starchy flours like potato starch, tapioca, arrowroot, or all-purpose flour)
  • Aquafaba (the liquid from canned chickpeas)
  • Root vegetables

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How is it made?

Despite not coming from dairy products, the manufacturing process of dairy cheese and vegan cheese alternatives does not differ all that much. Cheese contains casein and is historically made by adding enzymes, like lactic acid, and bacteria to curdle the milk and separate the whey protein in it. The whey is then removed before salt is added to the casein and it is then heated, pressed, and left to age.

Plant based cheese follows a similar method, but the proteins are gathered from various plant sources instead before similarly using lactic bacteria, and oils also, to separate the proteins. Emulsifiers and thickeners are added afterwards to replicate the texture.

Vegan cheeses include a wide array of different ingredients to make them taste and behave more like dairy cheese, such as nutritional yeast for flavouring. Some vegan cheeses are even aged like their dairy counterparts. But ultimately it is casein, the protein found in dairy, which gives cheese its unique texture, and that’s why unsurprisingly, soy-based cheeses (which often contain casein) are some of the most popular on the market. However, soy alternatives containing casein are not vegan. But if you're someone who’s lactose intolerant looking for non-dairy cheese products, they might suit you.

Environmental impact: Vegan Cheese vs Dairy Cheese

Nearly two-thirds of vegans named environmental concerns as a motivating factor for switching to a vegan diet.

Now the environmental impact of vegan cheese is not entirely clear. Coconut oil, a common ingredient in non-dairy cheeses, has been frequently critiqued for its impact on deforestation and the resulting damage to animal habitats its production can cause. Additionally, another common ingredient used is nuts, and 2kg of CO2eq is used to produce 1kg of them, which is the equivalent to a car driving 5 miles. For almonds it is even higher, requiring 3.56kg of CO2eq to produce 1kg.

But nobody is perfect. None of us are saints and we can only suppress our cravings so much. Whether the environment was your primary inspiration for going vegan or if you’re just someone looking to cut back on their personal emissions, you can still indulge in the occasional cheddar style slice on your beyond burger with a lighter conscience.

Consumers commonly believe that amongst all foods, meat production alone has the greatest impact on climate change. The reality is that the dairy cheese industry creates more greenhouse gas emissions than pork, chicken, or eggs, according to the World Economic Forum. And this is cheese alone! This statistic does not even include the climate impact of all the other dairy products available for consumption.

Switching to vegan cheese could lower your carbon footprint by up to 50%, as a recent study in the U.K. suggests that vegan cheese creates less than half the climate impact and needs less than one-third of the land for production compared to dairy cheese.

Health impacts of vegan cheese

Is vegan cheese healthy? The short answer is it depends. It depends on the type of vegan cheese you consume and how often you consume it.

Dairy products, while not without their health hazards, are rich sources of protein and calcium and help provide a healthy, balanced diet. Non-dairy cheese however contains little to no protein but is high in starch and saturated fats.

An additional concern surrounding vegan cheese is the levels of highly processed ingredients that they contain. For example, refined oils, preservatives, colour additives and sodium can be found in high quantities in the more processed variants of vegan cheese. In general, they are almost void of nutritional value.

But again, it depends. Some vegan cheeses, rather than being highly processed, are primarily made up of whole unprocessed ingredients like nuts/seeds or root vegetables, with added spices to replicate the flavours of dairy cheese. Cashew nut-based cheeses, for example, tend to have lower levels of sodium and higher levels of protein than some of their competitors. Some vegan cheeses are even calcium fortified and vitamins and minerals are added to mimic the health benefits of regular dairy cheese.

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Vegan diets tend to be higher in fibre and various vitamins and nutrients than omnivorous diets. They are also likely to produce better gut and digestive health. So, I think it is safe to say, the occasional slice of vegan cheese will not decimate the health of most people. If one were to consume large amounts of it often, then yes, there will be impacts on your health and increased risk of inflammatory diseases, but the same goes for dairy cheese as well.

When picking your vegan cheese at the supermarket, it is best to check the nutrition labels and keep in mind that not all vegan cheeses are created equal. Go for one with less sodium and higher levels of protein, healthy fats, and vital macronutrients if you can.

If you can’t find one in your local supermarket that suits you, then you can even make it yourself at home. There are plenty of vegan cheese recipes online for you to draw inspiration from. It may end up healthier and cheaper for you in the long run to switch from store-bought to home-made.

What's the issue with vegan cheese?

“A lot of people are apprehensive” about vegan cheese, states Mike Moore, founder of vegan cheese company Honestly Tasty. But why? When the markets for other non-dairy alternatives like milk and yoghurt have boomed, why is cheese falling behind?

The main issue is the taste. Moore says some options have a “plasticky and processed texture with a strange, almost chemical taste”, and as a former vegan myself, I can confirm this is true. In fact, the prime reason I abandoned veganism was because I missed cheese, and the vegan alternatives were not providing a satisfactory replacement. But that was ten years ago.

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The future of vegan cheese

In the last decade we have witnessed a renaissance of plant-based products, cheese included. The unpalatable dairy-free cheeses first created in 1980, have been revolutionised. Nowadays, there are plenty of brands available to choose from, like Violife and Sheese, and even more homemade recipes online to browse. Even mainstream dairy companies like Cathedral City, Babybel and Philadelphia now offer dairy-free options.

According to the Vegan Society there are 432 “non-dairy cheese” products with the vegan trademark. Compared to 10 years ago when a person had to search to find non-dairy cheese from a niche little vegan shop 40 minutes away, many of these brands are now available in your local supermarkets. Tesco lists 28 different brands of vegan cheese on its website.

In terms of people’s main concerns regarding it, bit by bit both the taste and texture of vegan cheeses has been improving over the years. Companies have even recently developed a method of recreating a version of casein in a lab, to mimic in vegan alternatives, the texture, functionality, and mouthfeel of dairy cheese. Vegan cheese made this way is yet to make it onto the UK market, but within the next decade there is every possibility we will see it on our shelves.

In 2021, the vegan cheese market was estimated globally to be worth $2.5 million and it is expected to grow by almost 13% by 2030 with the number of people pursuing vegan lifestyles, or even just trying to reduce their consumption of animal products, rising exponentially. Vegan cheese, having the most room for improvement amongst its non-dairy counterparts, may actually be the standout star of the vegan market in the coming years.

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