Is Vegan Cheese Healthy?

Many people are turning to vegan cheese as a substitute for the real thing. But just because a food is vegan doesn't necessarily mean it's healthy.

Vegan eating has gone mainstream.

Vegan options are now widely available on many restaurant menus, and a number of high-profile athletes (such as NBA stars Wilson Chandler and Jahlil Okafor) have recently gone vegan.

A vegan diet excludes all animal products, including meat, poultry, eggs, butter, cheese, animal milks, etc. Sounds tough, right? Well, there are a number of vegan food options designed to mimic the taste and texture of animal products. Vegan products are also becoming popular with omnivores for a variety of reasons, from allergies to concerns about sustainability. One such product? Vegan cheese.

Many Americans have problems digesting traditional dairy products, but love the taste of cheese. According to the Washington Post, consumers spent $5 billion in the "plant-based food sector" in 2016, with the largest subcategory being "alternative cheeses." But just because something's vegan doesn't automatically mean it's healthy. So what's the deal with vegan cheese?

Traditional cheese is made using casein, a protein found in the milk of animals such as cows, goats, buffalo and sheep. Since vegan cheese cannot contain casein, vegan cheese producers turn to a variety of other ingredients for substitution. "Vegan cheese can be made from soy protein (used in shiny, slick, rubbery varieties), solidified vegetable oil (like coconut, palm, or safflower), nutritional yeast, thickening agar flakes, nuts (including cashews, macadamias and almonds), tapioca flour, natural enzymes, vegetable glycerin, assorted bacterial cultures, arrowroot and even pea protein," writes Elise Moreau for Organic Authority. While vegan cheeses were largely awful 10 years ago, many modern vegan cheesemakers are now using the same processes (such as fermentation) that traditional cheesemakers have used for centuries. The result is more complex and enjoyable flavors.

RELATED: Why Are So Many Athletes Ditching Dairy? Should You?

One major issue in determining the health of vegan cheese is that the formulation can differ so much between different brands. Daiya Foods is one of the most popular producers of vegan cheese. They use a variety of oils (mainly coconut oil) and ingredients like tapioca starch to create their cheese. Considering that mozzarella cheese is far and away the most popular cheese in America, let's take a look at Daiya's "Mozzarella Style Shreds." A 1/4 cup serving contains 90 calories, 6 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 280mg sodium, 7 grams total carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 0 grams sugar, 1 gram protein, 2% of your daily calcium and iron, and no vitamin A or vitamin C.

How does that stack up against traditional mozzarella cheese? A 1/4 cup of Sargento Shredded Mozzarella contains 80 calories, 5 grams of fat, 3.5 grams saturated fat, 15mg cholesterol, 180mg sodium, 2 grams total carbohydrate, 0 grams dietary fiber, 0 grams sugar, 7 grams protein, 20% of your daily calcium, 4% of your daily vitamin A, and no vitamin C or iron.

While many of the nutrition facts are similar, the dairy cheese has a serious leg up in terms of protein and calcium. The Daiya cheese also contains significantly more ingredients than the dairy cheese. It's a similar story when you compare Daiya's Swiss Style Slices and Sargento Sliced Swiss Cheese. The two contain a similar amount of calories and fat, but the dairy cheese contains significantly more protein and calcium.

Field Roast's "Chao Slices" are another popular type of vegan cheese. Available in three varieties, Chao Slices are made using fermented tofu and coconut oil. Each of the three varieties—Creamy Original, Coconut Herb and Tomato Cayenne—have identical nutrition facts. One Chao Slice is about the size of a Kraft American Cheese Single. The two share similar nutrition facts, yet the Kraft offering is significantly higher in protein and calcium.

The three biggest benefits of dairy cheese are its high protein, calcium and vitamin B12 content. Protein is one of the most important nutrients for athletes. High-quality protein provides the amino acids that muscles need to repair and rebuild, allowing you to recover from exercise and get stronger over time. The body can also use protein as a source of energy. Calcium is essential for the creation and maintenance of strong bones and teeth, and it also helps your nerves, muscles and heart function properly. Many Americans are deficient in vitamin B12, which is required for proper neurological function and red blood cell formation. Many vegan cheeses don't deliver these nutrients in significant amounts. This wouldn't be an issue if vegan cheeses made up for it in other areas (such as a higher fiber or vitamin content), yet many do not.

But then there are products like Treeline Treenut Cheeses. Made using cashew nuts and the process of fermentation, these vegan cheeses have more recognizable ingredient lists and superior nutritional value. The Green Peppercorn French-Style Soft Cheese, for example, has just six ingredients—cashew nuts, filtered water, green peppercorns, sea salt, lemon juice and L. Acidoophilus (a probiotic commonly used in dairy products). A 1-ounce serving contains 90 calories and just 1.5 grams of saturated fat while also packing 4 grams of protein.

So, is vegan cheese healthy? There's simply too much variation to give a definitive answer. Some vegan cheeses are highly processed and offer little in the way of nutritional value. Yet others possess a shorter, more recognizable ingredients list while also offering significant amounts of valuable nutrients. It really is a case-by-case basis. The simple fact that vegan cheese isn't "real cheese" doesn't necessarily make it healthier, as much of the research on dairy cheese is conflicting. For example, the high amount of saturated fat in dairy cheese was long believed to be a contributor to cardiovascular disease. Yet a recent meta-analysis published in the European Journal of Epidemiology found dairy products (including cheese) have a "neutral" effect on cardiovascular and all-cause mortality.

In general, vegan cheese should not be considered a health food. Can it be a part of a healthy diet, just like dairy cheese? Absolutely. But much like dairy cheese, vegan cheese is often high in calories and therefore should be consumed with care. If you're looking for the healthiest vegan cheeses, your best bet is to search for a product with a short, recognizable ingredients list and solid overall nutrition facts. And as always, the type of food you're putting the cheese on is equally important.

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