Food Science

Vegan Cheese and Its Impact on Health

Vegan cheese is thought of as a godsend for those who cannot tolerate dairy products – those whose lactose intolerance makes regular cheese a food product to avoid at all costs. Amidst all the attention that vegan products are attracting these days, it is perhaps vegan cheese that gets the most. If you head out to your friendly neighborhood grocery store today, you will probably see quite an impressive variety of vegan cheeses stacked up there. While the variety does not come close to the many, many options you have with regular dairy cheese, you do not really have too much cause for complaint. After all, vegan cheese does enable you to get as close as you can in enjoying the taste and flavor of this dairy product that you are allergic to. Plus, going vegan seems to be quite a stylish thing to do these days and that makes vegan cheese even more appealing.

But what about those who are not allergic to dairy – those who can take lactose with no issues? Should they avoid cheese and opt for the vegan versions too? Dairy comes with a bad reputation for being a food stuff that contributes to weight gain, although this may not quite be the case at all. Many dieters actually do avoid regular dairy cheese and switch to vegan options because they believe that cheese has too many calories. While it is true that some cheeses are high in calories, the important thing to know here is that you do have options like cottage cheese that are low in calories.

The more important thing is that regular cheese and other dairy products come loaded with many, many other nutrients as well. When you choose to give these up, you also forgo the benefits of those from your diet. Most significantly, dairy can be a rich source of calcium, protein, and many vitamins, particularly vitamin B12. A comparative analysis of dairy cheese and vegan cheese shows that dairy cheese comes out on top in terms of protein and calcium content. Protein is an essential building block for the human body and calcium is essential for bone strength. Vitamin B12 is needed for red blood cell formation, as well as optimum neurological functioning.

All of these are essential nutrients for your body that you can get from dairy cheese, so it may not be a good idea to cut this food product entirely out of your diet. If you are not allergic to dairy, then you may want to keep regular cheese on your diet – maybe reduce the quantities and use vegan cheese to make up for a portion of your overall cheese inclusion instead.

But first, it is a good idea for you to know how exactly vegan cheese is different from regular cheese.

Intro to Vegan Cheese

As the dairy free wave grows in magnitude across the world, more and more vegan products are flooding into the market place everywhere. Vegan cheese is one such entrant. This kind of cheese comes in many variants now, and that gives you quite a good choice in terms of flavor and texture. But what exactly is vegan cheese? These are cheeses made from plant derivatives. You will find vegan cheese made from soy, cashew, macadamia, agar, peas, arrowroot, tapioca, and other similar plant produce.

Dairy cheese is made from the protein casein in the milk of cows, buffalo, sheep, goats, etc. The milk is curdled with the aid of bacteria and enzymes to make the cheese. During the curdling process, the whey protein separates from the casein, and the former is removed. Salt is added to the leftover casein, and then it is left to age. This is how dairy cheese comes into being.

With vegan cheese, you get the protein from the plant source you are using. Lactic bacteria and oils may be used to separate the protein. In some cases, the vegan cheese is also aged, but not always. Thickeners may be added to lend texture to the vegan cheese. The major difference between vegan and dairy cheese is that the plant protein does not form a good bond within itself, which is why this cheese may be blander tasting than dairy. However, the vegan cheese we have today is far tastier than what used to be produced, so taste need not be a huge deterrent if you are allergic to dairy and are looking for a vegan alternative.

Apart from the taste, the vegan cheese differs in its nutritional profile. As you already know, it falls short when it comes to protein, calcium, and vitamins as compared with dairy cheese. So does this mean vegan cheese is not healthy? Well no. It just means that you should choose your vegan cheese with care so that you are not missing out on nutritional value just because you are switching out of dairy.

Keep this in mind in particular about protein. The body needs amino acids because proteins are made up of amino acids and they help rebuild the body, repairing the wear and tear that takes place on a daily basis. Plants do have proteins, but these are not as high quality as animal protein that we find in dairy products.

This makes a big difference, especially for vegetarians who cannot rely on meat for proteins. Their major source is dairy. Switching out from dairy to plant based vegan cheese is not a good idea because plants do not have all of the essential amino acids. Vegan cheese may have protein, but the chances are that it lacks at least one of the nine amino acids that are critical for good health. Soy does contain quality proteins, but if lactose intolerance is what is driving you to vegan foods, this may not be the appropriate choice for you.

Our body cannot make its own protein, so we are entirely dependent on our food source for this nutrient. By opting out of dairy and for vegan, you forgo the ‘complete’ protein products that have all nine amino acids.

When it comes to iron as well, vegan products are not the ideal you should be choosing. There is iron in plants, especially in spinach, legumes, and some other food stuffs. But this is non-haem iron. Animal products contain haem-iron that is absorbed easily and efficiently by the body. Even with adequate vegan cheese in your diet, you may end up being iron deficient if you are avoiding dairy cheese.

Health Impact of Vegan Cheese

Vegan cheese will not help you with your daily requirement of protein or calcium or B12, so in that respect, it does straggle behind dairy cheese. In addition, the fact is that some vegan cheeses are highly processed, so they lose all their nutritional value during the processing well before they come to your store shelves. Including these as part of your diet adds nothing of value to your system. And vegan cheese does come with calories, so that is something you should be paying attention to as well.

The key takeaway here is for you to check the ingredients list on your vegan cheese to see if you are okay with eating what has gone into the product. You want to avoid extra flavorings and additions and ensure that it has the right plant products that will give you good health. If you are careful about which vegan cheese you are picking, you can manage by making it a substitute (partial, if you can tolerate lactose, complete, if not) for dairy cheese.

A word of advice for you is that vegan cheeses made from nuts generally taste better and are more similar to your dairy cheese. Cashew is a most popular alternative. The texture of these cheeses is quite comparable with dairy cheese too, which is a big plus.

Keep in mind that, if you are switching out of dairy cheese, then you need to do something to make up for the calcium, protein, and vitamin gap that your diet now has. Your vegan cheese may not adequately cover up the difference, so your entire diet may need to be revisited so that you have something else on your plate that adds these essential nutrients to your diet. In short, do not think that your vegan cheese is making up for your calcium/protein needs like your dairy cheese does.

The impact of the lost nutrients may not show up immediately once you switch to a vegan cheese diet. It can take years for B12, protein, or calcium deficiencies to make their impact visibly felt, but your body has been steadily suffering the lack of these all the time. This makes it very necessary for you to keep in mind that vegan cheese does not have the same nutritional profile as dairy cheese if you are making the switch.

However, the fact remains that vegan cheese is growing in popularity. Market research shows that the global market for this food product was valued at $ 2,147.7 million in 2019. The research also shows that the market is all set to grow at a good pace until 2028. Mozzarella vegan cheese, in particular, is the product in this niche that is likely to see the maximum growth in demand.

Benefits of Vegan Cheese

What makes this such a popular product is that vegan cheese can be good for you in some ways as well. Take a look at the good news about these cheese alternatives:

Low Cholesterol

If you are trying to keep your cholesterol levels within reason, then apart from paying attention to what is on your plate every mealtime, you may want to opt for vegan cheese and cut down an excess of dairy cheese use. If your vegan cheese is completely plant based and has no additives, then you can rely on it to be a super low cholesterol product. For those with high LDL cholesterol levels, vegan cheese is a good adoption into the diet plan.

Few Food Allergens

If you have a host of food allergies, then vegan cheese may be a safe product for you to include in your diet. The nut based cheeses and soy cheeses notwithstanding, you might be able to find vegan options that do not trigger any of your food allergies. The nut/soy based ones come with the base product clearly mentioned, so you can avoid those easily if you are allergic to those ingredients. Apart from these variants, most vegan cheese products avoid the top allergens that affect people who are sensitive to specific foods.

High Fiber

Generally, vegan cheese is a fiber rich product that means it helps your digestive system do its job efficiently. While your daily vegan cheese intake may not contain a whole lot of fiber, it does have an impact on your digestion, and it helps keep constipation away. Keep in mind that, with regular dairy cheese, you don’t get fiber, so this is a definite advantage that vegan variants have over the dairy kind.

Whole Food Base Types

Vegan cheeses that are made from whole foods can be a good addition to your plate from a health perspective. It is important for you to carefully pick these from the myriad variants you have at your store, but once you do identify the healthy vegan cheese options with whole food base, you are aiding your health. These tend to undergo minimal processing as well – another big advantage, and these varieties offer far more nutrients than the highly processed kinds.

Overall, it is clear that, unless you have lactose intolerance, it may not be a good idea to forgo all the nutrients that dairy cheese offers by switching over entirely to vegan ones. Vegan cheese does have its benefits to offer, but it is necessary to buy the right kind, one that gives you nutrition and does not impair your health. Taste wise, while the vegan option you get today can be compared with dairy cheese, the significant difference in nutritional value makes it necessary for you to stop thinking of this as a dietary alternative to dairy cheese.

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