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Plant-based cheese is here to stay, and your gut will thank you

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Alyssa GirdwainApril 24, 2020

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To your friend who says she can’t go vegan because she would miss cheese too much (or if you are that friend) she’s in luck. “Vegan cheese has come a long way over the years,” says Lauren McNeill, RD, Toronto-based registered dietitian. Alts to dairy cheese are on the up and up, putting slander against vegan varieties—is this shredded plastic or fake mozz?—to rest.

Here, one brand shares how their almond milk-based products are made, and a registered dietitian weighs in on whether vegan cheese offers gouda benefits (pun intended).

What is plant-based cheese?

Whether you ditch the dairy stuff for ethical reasons or because your digestive system flat out refuses lactose, help is here to satisfy all of your cheesy cravings. Considering cheese is a broad foodstuff, plant-based options are made with ingredients (sans any animal products) that vary based on the brand or recipe. “Some rely mostly on nuts like cashews, while others use soy, tapioca starch, potato starches, or coconut oil,” says McNeill. Homemade varieties often call for a base of potatoes, carrots, nutritional yeast, nuts, or seeds.

Think of the cheese usually stacked on your charcuterie boards—it probably has a vegan dupe by now. The cheese experience depends on its melt, texture, stretch, and packs a range of flavors from subtle creaminess to a pungent tang depending on what kind you reach for. That variety is one reason cheese is tricky to successfully veganize, especially compared to other plant-based alternatives (I’m looking at you, oat milk).

How is vegan cheese made?

While the science of transforming animal proteins to cheese is unique, vegan fromagers have learned a thing or two from the traditional process. Kite Hill, the brand behind popular dairy-free yogurts and cheeses, says taste and quality took the reins during product development.

“To make cheese, one of the first things we needed to tackle was to form a curd,” says Tal Ronnen, co-founder and culinary chef at Kite Hill. They settled on creating curd from almond milk made of locally-sourced nuts from California’s San Joaquin Valley. “Once the almond milk is made, we inoculate the recipe with proprietary enzymes and cultures,” Ronnen says. This classic technique helps the brand’s ricotta alternative mimic the taste and silky texture of the real thing.

Are there any advantages of eating plant-based cheeses?

Of course, the healthfulness of vegan cheese depends on its ingredient list and level of processing. McNeill says varieties made with a base of potatoes, carrots, nutritional yeast, nuts, or seeds might pack more nutrients than their dairy counterparts. This can include more fiber, vitamin C, B vitamins, and magnesium, she says. Certain brands also enrich products with nutrients you’d get from dairy cheese. Take Treeline’s cashew cream cheeses, which are fortified with probiotic-rich acidophilus. However, vegan cheese takes a couple of losses. “Most store bought cheeses are lower in protein than traditional dairy cheese, but also may be lower in fat than dairy cheese,” says McNeill.

So nut and soy-based cheeses might not elevate your diet to the next level of health, but it’s also likely you’re not digging into a cheese ball every night. “I view store bought vegan cheese as an ‘add-on’ or ‘occasional’ food, the same way I would view dairy cheese,” McNeill says. She suggests people find a brand they actually enjoy rather than avoiding certain ingredients.

Additionally, plant-based cheeses can be easier to digest, especially for 65 percent of the population that struggles with lactose, which makes dairy cheese a no-go. Bye bye, gas, bloating, and problematic trips to the restroom.

Buying and making plant-based cheese

Finally finding your favorite vegan cheese might take a little shopping around, and it also depends on what cheesy dream you’re chasing. Shreds? Blocks? Queso? Soft brie? Mozzarella balls? The options are becoming endless.

McNeill personally opts for Chao cheese by Field Roast for grilled cheese sandwiches, soft cheese and feta from Canadian shop Stokes, and shreds from Earth Island (aka Follow Your Heart in the States) to top pizza. Other prominent brands include Treeline’s soft French-style nut cheeses, Siete’s cashew queso, and Miyoko’s, which offer a variety of flavored cheese wheels.

So you’re trying to be a fromager? Your best bet to start is with vegan cheese sauces to douse over pasta, nachos, burrito bowls, and more. Hack a celebratory creamy cheese ball with Minimalist Baker’s version made with nutritional yeast and pimento peppers. Opt for a cashew and macadamia nut option from chef Lauren Montgomery for a tangy spread. Whip up a five-ingredient “goat” cheese in your food processor a la Fork and Beans. Or if you’re feeling ambitious, go full cheesehead and attempt Miyoko Schinner’s feta recipe that develops flavor over time. Voilà! Wine and cheese nights will never be the same.

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