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Vegan Cheese: What’s the Best Dairy-Free Option?

Health + Wellness
Vegan raw cheese from cashew nuts. byheaven/ iStock / Getty Images

By Ansley Hill, RD, LD

Cheese is one of the most beloved dairy products across the globe. In the U.S. alone, each person consumes more than 38 pounds (17 kg) of cheese per year, on average (1).


As a result of the growing popularity of vegan and other dairy-free diets, numerous dairy-free cheese substitutes are now available.

Vegan cheeses are made from a variety of plant-based ingredients and come in a wide selection of styles and flavors.

This article explores some of the most popular vegan cheese options.

Made From a Variety of Sources

The first dairy-free cheeses were created in the 1980s—and were not particularly palatable.

However, the vegan cheese market has exploded in the last few years. There is now a multitude of flavorful varieties, some of which could fool even the most devoted cheese connoisseur.

They can be purchased from the store or made at home and are often crafted from unexpected ingredients.

Soy

Soy may be the most common ingredient for any plant-based animal-product substitute—and cheese is no exception.

Several different commercial brands offer cheese-like products made from tofu or other forms of soy protein. Various vegetable oils, gums and other ingredients are usually added to help mimic the texture and taste of real cheese.

Notably, some soy-based cheeses contain casein, a milk protein. Casein is included to allow the processed product to melt like real cheese.

Soy-based cheeses that contain casein aren't vegan. However, they may still be appropriate if you're avoiding dairy to manage a lactose allergy.

Tree Nuts and Seeds

Cheese alternatives made from different types of raw tree nuts and seeds may be the most popular type of do-it-yourself (DIY) vegan cheese because they're relatively easy to make at home.

If food prep isn't your thing, they're also available pre-made from the grocery store.

One of the biggest draws to this type of vegan cheese is that it requires fairly minimal processing.

Typically the nuts or seeds are soaked, blended and fermented with the same types of bacteria used to make dairy cheese. Other ingredients like salt, nutritional yeast or herbs may be added for flavor.

Some of the most popular ingredients for nut- and seed-based cheeses include:

  • Macadamia nuts
  • Cashews
  • Almonds
  • Pecans
  • Pine nuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds

Coconut

Another popular vegan-cheese base is coconut milk, cream and oil.

Coconut's high fat content makes for a creamy, cheese-like product—but usually requires additional ingredients like agar-agar, carrageenan, cornstarch, tapioca and/or potato starch to mimic the density and texture of real cheese.

Because coconut has a strong flavor on its own that isn't reminiscent of cheese, other flavor-boosting ingredients are typically added, such as salt, garlic powder, onion powder, nutritional yeast and lemon juice.

Flour

Some vegan cheeses are made from a combination of different starchy flours, such as tapioca, potato, arrowroot or all-purpose flour.

The flours are not used by themselves but combined with other ingredients like soy milk, almond milk, cashews, coconut or white beans.

Typically, vegan cheese recipes that use larger quantities of flour will result in a sauce-like consistency instead of a sliceable, block-style cheese. Results will vary depending on the particular recipe and ingredients used.

Root Vegetables

Although less common, some types of vegan cheeses use root vegetables as a base. Potatoes and carrots are among the most popular sources.

This method of vegan cheesemaking results in a very soft, gravy-like cheese sauce.

The vegetables are first cooked until very soft, then blended with other ingredients like water, oil, salt and spices until a smooth and creamy consistency is achieved.

Aquafaba

Aquafaba is the liquid from canned chickpeas. While you may usually throw it away, it has some unexpected uses for vegan baking.

It's used most frequently as an egg substitute in baked goods, but its latest claim to culinary fame is its use in vegan cheese.

Aquafaba is a convenient cheesemaking ingredient because it allows the end product to melt when heated the way dairy cheese does.

The final product still requires binding ingredients, such as agar-agar or carrageenan. Other ingredients like cashews or coconut cream or oil are usually involved, too.

Summary

Vegan cheeses are made from a variety of ingredients depending on the desired results. Soy, coconut and tree nuts are among the most popular bases.

Available in Multiple Styles

Vegan cheese comes in almost every form that traditional dairy-based cheese does. This is particularly advantageous for an easy transition into vegan and dairy-free cooking.

Most of these vegan cheeses are available at major grocery stores, although individual selections will vary.

Some of the most popular styles include:

  • Shredded: Many major brands now offer shredded-style vegan cheese. Mozzarella and cheddar styles are probably the most popular. This variety is best for sprinkling on top of pizza, tacos, potatoes or casseroles.
  • Cream cheese: Vegan options for cream cheese are great for spreading on bagels and toast or using in creamy sauces. Like traditional cream cheese, they also come in a variety of flavors.
  • Block and sliced: Vegan options for block and sliced cheese come in many varieties, including cheddar, smoked gouda, provolone and American. They're best used on crackers or sandwiches.
  • Soft cheese: Varieties include vegan ricotta, brie and camembert.
  • Parmesan-style: Grated parmesan-style vegan cheese makes a great plant-based option for topping pasta, pizza or popcorn.
  • Nacho cheese dips: If you miss cheese dips and sauces, you can now buy vegan nacho cheese or choose from a variety of easy recipes online.

Summary

Vegan versions of many of your favorite dairy-based cheeses are now widely available. They can be purchased in commercial preparations from the grocery store or made at home.

Is It Healthy?

Whether or not vegan cheese is healthy depends on the type you choose and how often you consume it.

Much like regular cheese, vegan cheeses can have a place at the table as part of a healthy diet—but they shouldn't be relied on as a sole source of nutrition.

Too much of any single food could be unhealthy, especially if it's replacing other vital nutrients or food groups.

In general, vegan diets are higher in fiber and various vitamins and minerals than omnivorous diets. They may also contribute to optimal gut and digestive health (2, 3).

The main concern with some types of vegan cheese is how many highly processed ingredients they contain. Research indicates that eating patterns which emphasize whole foods over processed foods tend to be more nutrient-dense and healthier overall (4, 5).

Some of the more processed types of vegan cheese contain large amounts of refined oils, preservatives, color additives and sodium while being mostly void of substantial nutritional value. In general, foods like this should be consumed minimally, if at all.

On the contrary, some vegan cheeses are primarily comprised of whole foods like ground nuts and seeds or cooked vegetables with added spices to mimic cheese flavors.

These minimally processed versions are likely to offer more nutritional value in the form of fiber, healthy fats and vital micronutrients.

In this way, vegan cheese could offer a legitimate contribution to a healthy diet.

Summary

Vegan cheese can be healthy or harmful depending on the type and how it's eaten. Minimally processed options are likely healthier than ultra-processed products.

Which Ones Should You Choose?

Ultimately, the vegan cheese you buy should be based on your own taste preferences and the type of dish for which you intend to use it.

Nutritionally speaking, your best bet is to make your own or choose a pre-made option with the most whole-food ingredients.

Always keep in mind that a well-planned, healthy diet should include a variety of different vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats and lean protein (6).

If your newfound love of vegan cheese ends up replacing any one of these major food groups, you may be throwing your diet out of balance and risking nutritional deficiencies.

As with any food, moderation and balance are key.

Summary

The vegan cheese you choose should be based on your own tastes and preferences. Just make sure you're eating it as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.

The Bottom Line

There are now more vegan cheese options on the market than ever before, making it easier for you to follow vegan or other dairy-free diets.

Vegan cheeses are made from a variety of plant foods, including nuts, soy, seeds and root vegetables, and come in almost as many styles and flavors as dairy cheese.

Like regular cheese, vegan cheese can be part of a healthy diet when used in moderation—but it's best to avoid highly processed options.

However, not all vegan cheeses are created equally. Some versions are highly processed and have less nutritional value than others.

Choosing varieties made from whole foods is your best bet.

Be sure to read nutrition labels to ensure a high-quality, nutritious choice. Or better yet, try making your own.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.

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