- What is vegan cheese?
- Health benefits of vegan cheese
- Side effects of vegan cheese
- The verdict
In the 80’s and 90’s these products were aimed at the lactose intolerant and those wanting a cholesterol-free substitute. Most were not vegan.
There was Galaxy Foods soy cheese, which was only vegetarian since it contained casein derived from cow milk. In ’00 they re-branded as Go Veggie, yet ironically, most flavors are still not 100% veggie.
Tofutti was the other big brand of that era. David Mintz, a Brooklyn restaurateur, started with a frozen dessert made from soybean curd in the 80’s. Cheese soon followed. These were created to comply with kosher dietary laws, because you can’t mix real dairy and meat in the same meal. (1)
In terms of mainstream vegan cheese brands being available, their history is short – barely a decade.
The bestselling brand today is Daiya. The company was founded in 2008 and their mozzarella and cheddar style came to market a year later.
Today they have shreds, blocks, and cream cheese. There’s provolone, Swiss, jalapeno Havarti, smoked Gouda, Monterey Jack, and more. Along with the Daiya frozen pizza, boxed mac ‘n cheese, and other lines of food.
The second most popular brand is Follow Your Heart, which was born out of a restaurant and natural grocer north of Los Angeles. They have been selling their famous Vegenaise egg-free mayonnaise since 1977, yet most of their cheeses didn’t come until this century. Their product launch timeline resembles that of Daiya.
Jumping on the bandwagon a bit late, there are a handful of other brands that soon followed; Teese, Kite Hill, Chao, and So Delicious, just to name a few.
In 2017, Trader Joe’s vegan cheese – which tastes eerily similar to Daiya – was launched.
Just a few years back, you would need to drive to the nearest big city to find these. Now they are being sold at the regular supermarkets such as Walmart, Kroger, and the like.
Restaurants and even a few fast food chains offer them. Some Pizza Hut locations in the UK carry Violife, which is a 100% plant-based brand from Greece.
Whether you’re on a plant-based diet or love being a meatasaurus, should you regularly be eating these?
There are both pros and cons to vegan cheese and they vary by type/brand.
For this to make sense, you first have to understand what you are buying…
What is vegan cheese?
Vegan cheeses are made using one or more of the following ingredients; tapioca flour, arrowroot flour, potato starch, oils, nuts, soy, and nutritional yeast. Daiya is made with tapioca flour and safflower oil. Follow Your Heart is palm fruit oil and starch. Kite Hill and Treeline use almond and cashew, respectively.
Due to fears of phytoestrogen and GMOs, soy based versions have plummeted in popularity. Go Veggie and Toffutti may have been first to market, yet today they seem to be in last place.
In short, there are 3 types of vegan cheeses for sale:
- Starch and oil based
- Nut based
- Soy based
You can see why it would be unfair to make generalized statements about them. The advantages and disadvantages are dictated by which of the three categories a given brand falls under.
That being said, there are ways that all of them are good for you…
Health benefits of vegan cheese
Since only animals produce this waxy substance, 100% plant-based foods have no cholesterol.
Switching to Daiya vs. regular cheese could make a lot of sense if you have high LDL cholesterol and/or require a statin to maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
2. Less saturated fat
A one-quarter cup serving of Daiya has 6g of fat and 33% of that (2g) is saturated.
Compare that to the same weight of regular mozzarella made from milk. It has 50% more saturated fat, with 3g instead of 2g.
Some research suggests saturated fat may increase risk of cardiovascular disease, heart disease, and stroke.
A meta-analysis of 8 human trials concluded that replacing saturated with more polyunsaturated correlated with lower rates of heart disease. (2)
There’s also evidence that eating saturated fats increases cholesterol levels more than polyunsaturated. (3)
The saturated vs. unsaturated debate is still not settled and it’s mostly in reference to long chain and very long chain saturated fats. Those are by far the most prevalent in our diets.
Short and medium chain fatty acids are digested differently and are good for you. You won’t find these in dairy cheese, but you will find them in coconut oil thanks to its high lauric acid content.
Some cheeses that are vegan use coconut oil.
Chao Creamery uses it as the number one ingredient after water in their slices of Coconut Herb with Black Pepper. Daiya and Follow Your Heart use it, but it’s usually lower down on the ingredients, after canola and safflower oils.
3. May reduce cancer risk
What’s worse for you, meat or dairy?
On one hand you have carcinogens which are unique to meat; heterocyclic amines (HCAs).
The HCAs found in food are formed when creatine (a non-protein amino acid found in muscle tissue) is heated or cooked. Many are surprised to hear that “healthy” grilled chicken breasts have far more HCAs than beef.
Creatine is found in milk, albeit significantly lower amounts than meat. When any food containing creatine is heated and cooked, HCAs might form. At high temperatures, creatine forms HCAs in just minutes. (4) (5) (6)
With dairy, the big concern is not the creatine, but rather the high amounts of a protein known as casein.
Research suggests that casein and other animal-sourced proteins highly correlate with cancer risks throughout the world.
The famous China study, which was run by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, singled out casein as the worst offender.
Ironically, he grew up as a dairy farmer and actually ran this multi-decade, largest nutritional study to date, in order to prove that dairy and meat is healthy… yet the results turned him vegan!
You can read about this in the NY Times bestseller, The China Study.
Is vegan cheese better than regular cheese? The fact is that 100% plant-based cheeses will not contain casein or form HCAs, as these can only be come from animal sources. Eating vegan cheese will mean you are avoiding these unhealthy compounds.
4. Safer for food allergies
With the exception of nut and soy cheese, most flavors of Daiya, Follow Your Heart, and Chao will be free of the top 8 allergens, which means they’re safe for 90% of food allergies.
Even when you include the brands made with tree nuts and soy, overall they are still easier to eat vs. regular cheese made from real milk.
Humans aside, you will find no animal on earth sucking their mom’s boobs past infancy and they never suck on those of another species.
Yet we as humans are consuming milk from birth to death and it’s from a different species.
It’s no wonder lactose intolerance is so prevalent!
Even the U.S. government, who’s highly favorable to the dairy industry, admits on the NIH website how big this problem is (7):
“Approximately 65 percent of the human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy. Lactose intolerance in adulthood is most prevalent in people of East Asian descent, affecting more than 90 percent of adults in some of these communities. Lactose intolerance is also very common in people of West African, Arab, Jewish, Greek, and Italian descent.”
To be clear, lactose intolerance technically is not an allergy, though many people do have an actual milk allergy too.
Whether intolerance or allergy, the increase in your gas, bloating, and constipation from dairy consumption can be a real nightmare. In the books of many, these side effects are actually worse than that of a mild food allergy.
5. Contains fiber
Not that it’s a lot per serving, but most brands of vegan cheese list 1g of fiber per 1 oz. That’s only 4% of your daily value, yet it’s still better than the 0% you get from regular cheese.
Meats, dairy, eggs, and fish all contain zero fiber. That’s one of the reasons why they can cause constipation or diarrhea.
If you’re eating half of a Daiya frozen pizza (which really isn’t that much food) the total amount of fiber you’re getting is 30% of your daily value.
6. Doesn’t contain hormones
Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) was approved by the FDA in 1993. It’s injected into lactating cows to boost their milk production. People pay up big time for milk and dairy marketed as rBGH-free.
Even though rBGH is synthesized in the lab, cows are already loaded with naturally occurring bovine growth hormone (BGH).
Both rBGH and BGH are molecularly comparable. Some rBGH products differ by just one amino acid.
Whether synthetic or produced by the cow, they both do the same thing; increase insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) which in turn, increases milk production.
Research has shown that in humans, blood levels of IGF-1 are…
“…positively associated with the risk for both breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men.”
The funny thing is that people demonize rBGH dairy, while turning a blind eye to the BGH that’s in there regardless, including organic cheese and milks, since the cows naturally produce this hormone.
Yeah, there’s no such thing as hormone-free milk.
But wait, it gets worse.
Folks freak out over soy milk because of the phytoestrogen, primarily in the form of genistein and daidzein.
Sure, these molecules are very similar in structure to the estrogen (estradiol) found in humans, cows, and other mammals. Though did you ever stop think about the actual estrogen you are consuming when you drink real milk and eat real cheese?
Maybe you should be first thinking about your dietary sources of actual estradiol before you are up in arms over pseudo plant forms that kind of look like it, and may or may not have a biological effect in humans. (10)
Out of an abundance of caution, indeed there’s definitely a case to be made that soy should be consumed in moderation, especially in men.
However there are much more concerning plant-based phytoestrogens in your diet, like those coming from beer. To see the evidence, check out our list of foods men should avoid that lower testosterone (or are at least suspected to).
Back to the plant-based cheese, if you’re consuming one that’s flax and soy free, you don’t have to worry about phytoestrogens and certainly not the actual estrogens that are made by animals!
7. Doesn’t contain casomorphins
In the 80’s it was discovered that there are proteins fragments in milk that bind to the same receptors in the brain as opioid molecules. There are thousands of different mammals and it is theorized that all of their milks contain these molecules, even though only cows and humans have been checked thus far.
Known as casomorphins, why are they in there?
God probably put them there for a very good reason.
When you think about it, if the baby experiences a soothing feeling while breastfeeding, this in turn encourages more breastfeeding. Obviously that’s vital for the life and growth of the baby.
On the other hand, as an adult, if these casomorphins have the effects that some scientists claim, then they might be bad for you if you struggle with weight gain. Some have even proposed that it might be possible for you to have a cheese addiction, literally.
Side effects of vegan cheese
There are several ways that plant-based cheeses may contribute to nutritional deficiencies and be bad for your health.
1. Most brands are a poor source of protein
The oil-based brands like Daiya, Teese, Chao, and Follow Your Heart only have around 4-5% of their calories coming from protein. That’s 1 gram or less per 45-90 calorie serving.
Compare that to real cheddar, with 7g and 113 calories for the same weight (1 oz). That’s also comparable to common white cheeses like provolone, mozzarella, and Swiss.
Parmesan is highest at 11g, while blue cheese and feta are among the lowest at 6g and 4g, respectively.
Of course, their high protein content is in the form of casein and whey, which are not desirable for multiple reasons.
The best vegan cheese for you will be those that are nut-based, because they have a higher amount of protein for roughly the same amount of calories as the oil-based recipes. Almond-based Kite Hill offers 3g for 78 calories. The cashew-based soft cream cheese from Treeline has 4g of protein for 90 calories. They’re soy free with no added oils.
2. Oil-based recipes may contribute to atherosclerosis
This is a tasty vegan cheeseburger one of us had at Veggie Grill in El Segundo, CA. The patty is Beyond Meat, which is made from pea protein. The cheese is Chao, which is made from oils and starches.
Chao melts amazingly and tastes great, but it may not be great for your arteries.
Atherosclerosis is considered to be an age-related disease that results in hardening of the arteries. This is due to the buildup of plaque on the walls, which can be made of a combination of cholesterol, fatty acids, calcium, cellular waste, and the blood clotting material known as fibrin.
Mainstream science considers it to be an irreversible condition. It gradually happens over years and decades.
Even if you can’t reverse it, you can slow its formation with better dietary decisions.
While fats can be perfectly healthy for you, there is a big difference between fats that are refined into a liquid form and those which are solid, unprocessed, and take longer to digest.
Just like how processed sugar hits your bloodstream quickly, the same occurs when you eat oils.
This makes sense when you think about it. Thousands of years ago, people were only exposed to small amounts of oils in the foods they ate. They weren’t separating the oils, refining them, concentrating them, and dousing them on things that otherwise would have little to none.
For example, an avocado or whole olive contains oil, though it’s not the same as dumping olive or avocado oil on your food.
The reason why even “healthy” olive oil and others are bad for you is because they are still highly refined, liquefied fats. Research has found that oils in general contribute to atherosclerosis formation. (11) (12)
Oh but wait, you thought the Mediterranean diet was good for you?
It’s more of a compromise. The oil in it is bad for you. Or at least, the original proponents hailed it because it was a better alternative versus butter and other unhealthy fats. (13):
“In terms of their effects on postprandial endothelial function, the beneficial components of the Mediterranean and Lyon Diet Heart Study diets appear to be the antioxidant-rich foods—vegetables, fruits … not olive oil. Dietary fruits, vegetables, and their products appear to provide some protection against the direct impairment in endothelial function produced by high-fat foods, including olive oil.“
For more info, check out Salt, Sugar and Oil: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
This is a strike against Daiya vegan cheese and all the others that heavily rely on oils for that fatty texture on your tongue. Come on guys, sub it out with some healthy proteins instead!
3. Sodium is bad for blood pressure and inflammation
Whether they’re oil or nut based, the one drawback that both types are guilty of is the addition of too much salt.
Follow Your Heart American style cheese has 180 mg of sodium per slice, which isn’t that bad at 8% of the daily value, but if you’re eating a pizza or something else with a lot of cheese, that number gets multiplied.
Nut cheeses are equally guilty, though some are better than others. Kite Hill ricotta is delicious and it’s 50% lower, with 90 mg of sodium per oz.
4. Little to no vitamin content
Whether vegans want to admit it or not, milk is a good source of several vitamins like B6, B12, and D (with the latter often being added).
Pure oils don’t offer anything in terms of vitamins. Starches like tapioca and arrowroot flour aren’t giving you much either.
Just as with almond milk, some vegan cheeses are fortified with added vitamins. Europe’s Violife brand has B12 and some of the U.S. brands are beginning to fortify.
To boost the vitamins, it’s always a good idea to add fresh veggies. Like what one of us did above. Gluten free bread with vegan cream cheese, topped with a fresh slice of a Michigan-grown heirloom tomato.
5. Deficient in essential minerals
Lack of calcium may be the first accusation you will make and if so, you are correct.
However you would be incorrect if you were to assume that you need to drink cow milk or eat dairy to get high amounts of this essential mineral.
Check out our list of 30 vegan calcium rich foods and you will see that many contain a higher concentration than cow milk!
Soy is actually an excellent source of calcium, as are other beans and legumes, and most impressive of all, leafy herbs and plants.
The calcium-rich ingredients aren’t being used to make these cheeses. Oils will contain none and almond cheese contains a little, though nothing spectacular. Soy-based Tofutti cream cheese and slices have become mostly oil, so there’s negligible calcium in those, too.
Nuts and soybeans will contribute some calcium, magnesium, and iron, though it will be a percentage in the low single digits of your daily value, at best.
6. May contribute to weight gain
When people think of vegans, perhaps an image of a skinny guy pops in their head.
That’s a preconceived notion that’s statistically accurate.
Loma Linda University published an extensive study on over 71,000 Americans and there was only one group of people who were not fat:
“Strict vegetarians [vegans] were the only group with a mean BMI value (24.0 kg/m2) below the cut-off point (25.0 kg/m2) defining overweight status.”
Omnivores were fattest, while vegetarians were thinner but still overweight. Only those on purely plant-based diets had an average BMI that is not classified as overweight. (14)
But make no mistake about it. You can definitely be a fat vegan!
If you’re eating a whole-food, oil-free diet, that’s pretty hard to do.
If you’re a vegan pigging out on Daiya and processed junk foods, obesity can definitely result.
This grilled cheese made with Follow Your Heart tastes like the real deal. But just like its dairy counterpart, this is a treat that should only be consumed sparingly (and hopefully not burnt and loaded with acrylamide like this one).
Several vegan cheeses do have a lower calorie count by weight than their dairy-based counterparts. A little better doesn’t mean it’s good to eat in excess.
7. Allergy risk
While you won’t have to worry about lactose in vegan cheese, there are still common allergens that may be lurking in the ingredients.
Most varieties of Follow Your Heart and Daiya are free of the top 8 food allergens. Their drawback is the oil.
The oil-free and protein-rich brands use tree nuts and those are common allergens.
For those with nut allergies wanting an oil-free option, soybeans remain a viable base ingredient. Unfortunately no major brand sells a soy cheese without casein and/or added oils.
Is vegan cheese good or bad for you?
Unlike regular cheese made using real milk, vegan cheese doesn’t have casein and IGF-1, two things that research suggests might increase cancer risk. It’s also cholesterol-free. These benefits make vegan cheese better for you than real cheese, however the latter offers more protein without processed additives.
The best tasting vegan cheese for pizzas, macaroni, and grilled cheese sandwiches is Follow Your Heart, according to the vegans at Superfoodly. Daiya melts equally as well, though it has an aftertaste that is bearable but not preferable.
The healthiest vegan cheeses will be those that are nut-based, since they offer significantly more protein. They also have little to no added oil, which is better for atherosclerosis. Their thicker texture and consistency work best for fully melting in recipes, like nacho cheese and lasagna. For topping pizza, tacos, and burgers they will work, but their chunkier texture is not desired for these recipes. Oil-based cheese shreds and slices work better.
Despite the nutritional and health-related drawbacks for oil and nut based varieties, both can have a place in your diet. The key is moderation. Vegan cheese is healthier for you in many ways, though if you eat it in excess, the benefits offered versus dairy may be outweighed by the bad.
Which brand do we eat?
Not to say that we don’t indulge in the naughty ones, but there’s only one that you will always find in our kitchens.
Gopal’s Rawmesan is a made with raw unprocessed ingredients, with no added oils, and it has protein content that rivals real cheese. The first ingredient, organic walnuts, makes it an excellent source of omega 3.
Does it taste like real Parmesan? Not really, but it’s delicious nonetheless!
What to do with it?
We use it to top pasta, salads, and even homemade pizza.
This simple recipe is made using a low carb gluten free cauliflower crust from Trader Joe’s (in their frozen aisle). We top it with artichokes and colored bell peppers. That cheese you see is Gopal’s, which was sprinkled on after cooking to keep it raw, though you certainly can cook with it.
Gopal’s label lists 1 gram of protein, but that’s for a 1/2 tablespoon serving that’s only 15 calories.
When you increase the serving size to match that of Daiya (90 calories) you will see that it provides 600% more protein content per calorie. That means 6 grams of protein for 90 calories, which is on par with real dairy! Try some yourself, you can get Gopal’s on Amazon.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.