By Anastasia Yandulskaya, PhD Candidate in Cell and Molecular Biology
Thinking about going vegan but love cheese? No need to give it up! Vegans can choose from a variety of dairy-free cheese substitutes. But how healthy are those cheese choices?
A vegan diet means no animal protein, so vegans need to closely monitor their nutrient intake. But little is known about the nutritional content of vegan cheeses.
A team consisting of a Spain-based scientist and a UK-based registered nutritionist set out to tackle this problem. They compared the nutritional composition of vegan cheese to that of milk-based cheese.
The researchers found their vegan cheese samples just like any average consumer – by going to grocery stores. They studied the labels of a variety of dairy-free cheese substitutes, which were made from coconut oil, cashew nuts, or tofu. They then recorded their nutritional contents, comparing them with regular milk-based cheeses.
The team focused on the essential macromolecule nutrients of the cheeses: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, as well as calories and amount of salt.
Overall, vegan cheeses contained a lot more carbohydrates and a lot less protein than dairy cheese. However, different types of vegan cheese also had distinct nutritional contents.
Coconut oil-based cheese turned out to have the unhealthiest nutritional profile among all vegan cheeses. It was laden with saturated fats, carbohydrates, and sugar. It also had barely any protein content, making it a subpar choice for enriching vegan diets with protein.
Cashew- and tofu-based cheeses performed much better in this evaluation. They had fewer carbohydrates and saturated fat than coconut oil cheese, as well as significantly more protein. Tofu cheese also contained fiber, which is an advantage over both its vegan competitors and regular milk cheese. Tofu cheese also had more protein than cashew cheese and about as much protein as milk cheese.
Which cheese is best?
Tofu-based cheese, made from soy, appeared to have the healthiest nutritional profile, with its impressive amount of protein and fiber and relatively low amounts of calories and saturated fats. Cashew cheese packed a punch of nutrients too. However, choosing the right type of cheese depends on individual dietary needs and preferences, as well as on cultural needs.
The researchers noted that since Spanish people tend to eat too much protein, choosing cashew cheese over tofu or milk cheese can help with this issue. But given the cashew industry controversy, some consumers may choose to avoid cashews.
The choice of cheese can also be dictated by what’s available at the grocery store. The researchers found that in Spanish supermarkets, most vegan cheese options were coconut oil-based. Only one store carried cashew and tofu cheeses, and the brand selection was minimal.
The study recommended cheeses based on their macronutrient content, but overlooked micronutrients. Vitamins and minerals are a crucial component of a balanced diet, which vegans also need to monitor. Knowing micronutrient content in dairy-free cheeses may help vegans make informed choices at a grocery store.
Finally, sometimes you may just want to treat yourself to some tasty cheese without worrying about what’s in it. Coconut oil-based cheeses tend to rank pretty high on taste tests. They are also suitable for people with soy and tree nut allergies, meaning that even though coconut oil cheese has a poor nutritional profile, it can still be a solid choice.
After all, vegans and non-vegans alike often eat cheese just because it’s so delicious!
Study: Fresán, Ujué, and Holly Rippin. “Nutritional Quality of Plant-Based Cheese Available in Spanish Supermarkets: How Do They Compare to Dairy Cheese?.” Nutrients 13.9 (2021): 3291. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13093291
Peer-edited by Ashley Aguillard, PhD Student in Nutrition