By now, you've seen meatless meat all over the internet. Some people think it's tasty, others think it's plain creepy. But there's no doubt that plant-based meat products took a turn in an innovative direction. Now, plant-based cheese is doing the same. Unlike the meatless meat industry, which is led by two companies great at making eerily beef-like vegan patties, cheese-less cheese spans a bigger gamut. Think about the cheese aisle at your local grocery store: rows of slices, cubes, blocks and shreds of all different colors and textures. There are literally thousands of cheese varieties in the world. Your grocery store alone probably stocks at least 50 different kinds.
While the vegan cheese industry is far from reaching 1,000 varieties, manufacturers of vegan cheese have developed an impressive number of types and textures. The question is: Is vegan cheese just as good as, or even better, than real cheese?
How is vegan cheese made?
The real cheeses you're familiar with are made from casein, a type of protein that comes from the milk of cows, sheep, goats, buffalo and other animals that produce milk (even humans!).
Enzymes and bacteria are added to curdle the milk into cheese, which separates the whey protein from the casein. The whey is removed; salt is added to the casein; the casein is heated, pressed and left to age.
Vegan cheese is made in a similar way, but it involves consolidating protein from various plant sources, often nuts and seeds, instead of animal milk. The proteins are separated with lactic bacteria and oils, emulsifiers and thickeners are added for texture. Some vegan cheeses are aged like dairy cheeses, but unlike the proteins in animal milk, the plant proteins don't naturally bond to each other. This is why vegan cheese isn't as sharp or flavorful as dairy cheese.
Comparing ingredients: Vegan cheese vs. dairy cheese
Some of the most popular ingredients for vegan cheese are cashews, tapioca, soybeans, coconut, almonds and nutritional yeast. Nothing scary there, but let's take a closer look.
I'll use a popular vegan choice as an example: Daiya Dairy-Free Cheddar Style Slices.
The ingredients: Filtered Water, Coconut Oil, Potato Starch, Tapioca Starch, Vegan Natural Flavours, Sea Salt, Tricalcium Phosphate, Pea Protein Isolate, Xanthan Gum, Lactic Acid (Vegan), Konjac Gum, Fruit and/or Vegetable (Color), Inactive Yeast, Potassium Chloride, Yeast Extract, Vegan Enzyme.
The nutrition facts:
Now, let's look at Sargento Sliced Natural Medium Cheddar Cheese.
The ingredients: Pasteurized Milk, Cheese Culture, Salt, Enzymes, Annatto (Vegetable Color).
The nutrition facts:
Is vegan cheese better for you than regular cheese?
It's truly hard to say that one is healthier than the other.
The Sargento is higher in fat and calories, but it's also higher in protein. It's only slightly higher in sodium, coming in at 140 milligrams versus the 115mg in the Daiya cheddar. The Sargento is also lower in carbs than Daiya, because Daiya uses plant products that naturally have carbs. Cheese made from animal milk does not have carbs.
In terms of ingredients, the Sargento contains far fewer. The Daiya slices contain a long list of ingredients, but nothing stands out as particularly concerning. Everything on the list is classified as "generally recognized as safe" by the FDA.
If you look at the two cheeses from a strictly nutritional standpoint, they both have pros and cons. But the real value in vegan cheese lies in the realm of food intolerances. For instance, vegan cheese is definitely the better choice for anyone with lactose intolerance or a dairy sensitivity. It may also be a great choice for people who need to strictly watch their sodium or saturated fat intake.
But if you don't have a dairy intolerance and you're not on a special diet for medical purposes, regular ol' dairy cheese can have a very healthy (and delicious) place in your diet. It's a great source of protein and calcium, and its fat content helps to keep you full and satisfied.
Another thing to keep in mind: the brand and type of cheese. For example, most American cheeses aren't cheeses at all -- rather, they are "cheese foods" or "cheese products," which means they are comprised of less than 51% cheese and therefore can't legally be labeled as cheese.
What happens to vegan cheese when you cook it?
When you heat dairy cheese, the solid milk fats begin to liquefy, which results in that ooey-gooey texture you get on top of pizza or in mozzarella sticks.
To see how vegan cheese reacts to heat, I cooked up two grilled cheeses -- one with Daiya and one with Sargento cheddar. Using the same skillet, the same type of bread and the same burner at the same heat on my stovetop, I melted two slices of Daiya between two pieces of bread and immediately followed up with two slices of Sargento.
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. I'd never had vegan cheese before and was kind of expecting it to retain its shape and lack the gooey-ness of a traditional grilled cheese. It took slightly longer to melt than the regular cheese: I cooked the Daiya sandwich for about 6 minutes, versus about 4 minutes for the Sargento.
The end results were surprisingly similar -- based on appearance and texture alone, I might not have noticed that the Daiya sandwich was vegan if someone else made it for me. As for the taste, the Sargento sandwich was sharper and more flavorful than its vegan counterpart.
I can't speak for all types of vegan cheese, but based on my Daiya experiment, vegan cheese comes close to the.
Where can I find vegan cheese?
Cheese-less cheese is becoming as widespread and readily available as meatless meat. You can find a handful of varieties at most markets and grocery stores, especially health food stores such as Whole Foods, Sprouts and Lassen's.
Many restaurants offer vegan cheese, too. In fact, the California-based chain Fatburger recently began offering Daiya cheese at select locations and Blaze Pizza uses Daiya shreds to make vegan pizzas.
To find vegan cheese near you, it's best to use the locator for the particular brand you want. Here are the locators for some big vegan cheese brands: