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Can Vegan Cheese Help Shrink Your Foodprint?

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Recent innovations in non-dairy cheese may help trim the emissions of your cheese habit.

By Susannah Shmurak Posted Feb 23, 2016

Vegan cheese

In researching the climate impact of food, I was dismayed to learn that though we ate very little meat (good climate move), the amount of cheese my family consumed was not so climate-friendly. With greater greenhouse gas emissions than fish, poultry, or pork, the cheese in our diets significantly upped the emissions of our otherwise relatively low-carbon lives. Cheese has long been a go-to ingredient to “beef up” (pun intended) our vegetarian pasta toppings and add protein and heft to numerous vegetable-based meals. What’s a cheese-eater to do?

The good news if you love cheese but want a lower-emissions diet: vegan cheese makers have come up with palatable replacements for dairy-based cheese, and they’re easier to find than ever.

Cheese’s Foodprint

Dairy Cow
Are non-dairy cheeses actually environmentally preferable? The story of dairy cheese’s climate impact starts with methane, a greenhouse gas produced by cows (or even more gassy sheep), with roughly thirty times the global warming potential of CO2. While the climate impact of a cup of milk isn’t too significant, it takes up to ten pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese, multiplying the impact considerably. Then the processing and aging of cheese requires energy, which produces more carbon.

The nuts and soybeans that form the basis of a number of non-dairy cheeses produce far less emissions before processing, which is where we see most of cheese’s emissions. (Exact metrics for a particular product are hard to come by.)

There’s also the issue of water. You may have read about all the water required to grow a single almond (1 gallon!). The water footprint of nuts is nearly twice that of milk on a per-calorie basis, but almond milk has half the calories per serving, so that should, shall we say, come out in the wash. Recipes for nut-based cheese vary quite a bit, but they tend to use less “milk” than the dairy cheese average.

Not all cheese is created equal, and non-aged cheeses, such as the uber-popular mozzarella, have a somewhat smaller footprint because of the lessened need for energy used in the aging process. Feta is a top pick from experts crunching the emissions numbers on our cheese choices.

It’s worth noting that the serving size listed in the EWG Eat Smart infographic can be a little misleading, as 4 oz of cheese could be four servings, while 4 oz of beef is only one smallish serving. It’s not difficult to eat twice that amount of meat in a sitting, but do you typically put away a half-pound of cheese in one go? On the flip side, an 8oz serving of chicken has about the same footprint of the 4oz of cheese you might put on your personal-sized pizza, so skipping meat in favor of cheese might not have the effect you intended. Dairy-based cheese is definitely something to cut back on if you’re trying to shrink your foodprint. Non-dairy cheeses could help if cheese plays a central role in your diet.

But How Do Vegan Cheeses Taste?

This is the all-important question for cheese lovers. In querying several social networks, I discovered that regular eaters of nondairy cheeses have developed strategies for making cheese replacements more palatable. I also got the sense that they had shifted their expectations quite a bit, and some passable cheese-like substance was better than no cheese-like substance at all.

Carol Defry Trimmer of Dallas, Texas, for instance, commented that “If you are a former cheese addict who can no longer eat dairy, then after 2-3 years of going without, you use Daiya and you love it. It’s better than going without!”

Travis Droogsma, the Refrigerated Grocery Buyer at The Wedge coop in Minneapolis and vegan for eight years, cautions those looking to replace their dairy cheeses that “most vegan cheese is not delicious.” He’s learned to use these cheeses sparingly and doesn’t advise them for grilled cheese sandwiches or plain cheese pizza. He recommends including them with lots of other ingredients, as “taken on its own this cheese doesn’t scratch the itch.”

But there is a lot of excitement building about a number of “artisan” nondairy cheeses that have entered the market. Gary Fountain, a vegetarian for forty-five years and vegan for five, is thrilled that his local Whole Foods in Connecticut will soon be carrying Kite Hill products, a popular California-based maker of artisan vegan cheeses ranging from ricotta to “ripened” cheeses. Vegan chef Miyoko Schinner recently launched an online vegan cheese shop called Miyoko’s Kitchen, which makes an array of “cultured” vegan cheeses receiving a lot of positive press. Lines have been out the door for the vegan cheeses and meats made at America’s first vegan “butcher shop,” The Herbivirous Butcher in Minneapolis and their success is likely to spawn imitators.

My family’s cheese habit comes mainly in the form of day-to-day mozzarella, parmesan and cheddar, used on homemade pizzas, quesadillas, pasta dishes, and in soups, so this home experiment stuck with the run-of-the-mill cheeses rather than the special occasion high-end varieties, which I fully intend to sample when we’ve cleared the other stuff from our fridge. Some of the brands available nationwide include Daiya, Go Veggie, Follow Your Heart, Lisanatti, Tofutti and Chao (made by Field Roast, known for their tasty vegan sausages). All the grocery managers and consumers I spoke to said Daiya is the leader in this type of cheese, so we started there, with their shredded “mozzarella.”

Our Home Taste Test Results:

vegan pizza with mushrooms

The Tasters:

Our family of four consumes a decent amount of cheese, but the Husband is the primary cheese hound, and he was not at all excited about the prospect of sampling ‘fake’ cheeses. We’re raising two pint-size cheese hounds who have cheese sticks, pizza, quesadilla, and pasta with cheese pretty regularly and generally don’t favor the veg-only dishes I make. Big Sister (age 5) was very suspicious and refused to participate, but Little Sister (age 3) loves trying anything new and cheerfully sampled most of the products I brought in.

The Brands:

Daiya
Daiya is by all accounts the market leader in vegan cheeses, having overtaken some truly rubbery and unappealing nondairy cheeses some years ago. Having done a tiny (and not terribly appetizing) experiment with Daiya mozzarella shreds on a tortilla, I thought we’d better follow the advice to use it sparingly on pizza night. I made ⅓ of a pita pizza with the shreds, the rest with regular mozzarella. I took a tiny bite and looked so disgusted, the Husband asked to be excused from the experiment.

The ever-intrepid 3-Year-Old tried it and said she liked it. Thank goodness, as I wasn’t going to help finish it. It has a sort of sour flavor that’s very unappealing, which came through despite all the tomato sauce and mushrooms I was counseled to conceal it with. It didn’t really melt, though it did take on a very gooey, but also unappealing texture. We found a vegan willing to take the rest of the package off our hands.

The Daiya cheddar fared somewhat better. Native New Yorker and newly-minted vegan, Andrea Mazzariello, uses it regularly on what his family calls QuesaDaiya. I followed his advice and used “MUCH less” than I would with a dairy cheese, and the results were pretty satisfactory. Two of us ate it without too much fuss, as the flavor and texture weren’t too far off from a typical cheddar (the Husband doesn’t care much for cheddar anyhow, and thought the texture didn’t quite cut it). Would we have preferred our usual cheese? Probably, but I suspect you would get used to it, especially if you like your quesadilla with lots of other toppings. The 3-Year-Old liked it enough that she asked for some shreds on crackers and had this to say: “Num-num. MORE!”

Daiya has also just started selling some new flavors in blocks I wasn’t able to get. Gary reported from his kitchen in Connecticut: “The gouda is very tasty, and the Monterey jack is good! A major step up for Daiya, as far as I am concerned. Major.”

Lisanatti
Lisanatti is another widely available and popular brand, so I picked up a couple blocks of their rice-based mild cheddar and almond-based mozzarella. Calling itself “The Good Health Cheese Alternative” these cheeses are made from largely organic ingredients, though I discovered after I got them home that they also contain milk casein to help with melting, so they’re not vegan. The Husband agreed to try them on crackers and was surprised that they had a decent texture, if not a lot of flavor straight up. I agreed. These cheeses melted pretty well but my older daughter complained about the smell, which none of the rest of us noticed.

Both met with approval from 3-Year-Old, who happily ate them with crackers on several occasions. Husband made a displeased face as some melted Lisanatti on a tortilla approached his mouth, but admitted “it wasn’t as bad as I thought.” But he also didn’t think it had much flavor on its own. With toppings, these block cheeses used in moderation are among the most likely to pass for the real thing.

Lisanatti and other “cheezes” that use casein to mimic the texture of dairy cheese pretty convincingly, cater to lactose-intolerant individuals who aren’t bothered by the milk casein and want something that melts like dairy cheese. Lisanatti’s helpful National Sales Manager and company founder’s daughter, Teresa Lisac, pointed out that Lisanatti products “contain no cholesterol, gluten, GMO’s, preservatives, sugars, saturated fats, or trans fats and are a good source of protein and calcium.” A low-calorie alternative to dairy cheese, the company works with dietitians to make products tailored to those trying to manage weight, heart health, diabetes, and Celiac-Sprue. But if you’re looking for something strictly vegan, Lisannatti and other casein-containing products are out, so check labels before you buy.

Vegan cheese on toast
Trader Joe’s and Chao
Another night we melted some Trader Joe’s vegan mozzarella and Chao slices on bread to go with a bean soup. 3-Year-Old liked the Trader Joe’s but didn’t want a second taste of Chao. I thought the Trader Joe’s shreds shared some of the gooey texture of Daiya, but with a less offensive flavor, so maybe this would be a good pizza option, keeping in mind the advice to go easy on cheese, heavy on toppings. The Chao slice, though it didn’t melt, tasted fine, though certainly not with the tantalizing flavor and texture of the fresh mozzarella I might have typically used. The Husband said indeed these options were acceptable in smaller quantities, “less objectionable” than some others he’d agreed to try. I found the shreds passable on a ratatouille.
Ratatouille with shredded vegan cheese
Trader Joe’s also makes a soy-based block and almond-based shred, both with tiny amounts of dairy-based ingredients, so off-limits for vegans (but 99% lactose-free). Both melted well and had a pleasant enough flavor, so good options if your aims are either emissions-reduction or avoiding lactose. The Husband said of both the Trader Joe’s and Chao melted in his quesadilla: “If I suddenly found out I was lactose intolerant and couldn’t eat cheese, I might eat that.” High praise indeed.

Go Veggie
I was the only one willing to put Go Veggie brand “grated Parmesan style topping” in my vegetable soup. One vegan I spoke to uses this soy-based product regularly. It was unobjectionable, but had a bit of sour aftertaste and lacked the umami flavor that’s the whole reason for adding parmesan to anything. Given the choice between Go Veggie or nothing, I might prefer my soup straight. It wasn’t bad on popcorn, but it also wasn’t as good as nutritional yeast (see more on this quasi-cheese replacement below).

The biggest loser we tried was Trader Joe’s “cheddar” slices, which incredibly actually contain cheddar cheese (though this soy-based product claims to be 99% lactose free). 3-Year-Old basically said she liked everything we offered her in this experiment, but she immediately spat out this orange, rubbery square. I did not even bother asking the Husband to try it. Melting it on eggs was OK, but in general I’d prefer my eggs without if this was the only option available.

And that pretty much sums up this experiment. Maybe once in awhile a little veggie-based cheese would help pump up a dish that could seem lessened without it, but in general, I would probably aim to go sans fromage.

Check the Ingredients

Post-experiment I was trying to use up some of the various cheeses and found myself just unable to do it. I looked at the first few ingredients on the Chao slices I’d just melted on bread and saw why: water, coconut oil, modified corn and potato starch. Water and oil is just not what you’re after when you want a bit of melted cheese on your bread, right?

Ditto with Daiya. Likewise the Trader Joe’s shreds (which use canola oil, something many whole foods advocates avoid, especially nonorganic, since the majority is GMO), which also contains things like xanthan gum, powdered cellulose, and maltodextrin. Not ideal for the whole foods diet we’re counseled to follow.

The Upshot

If you’ve committed to eating vegan, there are some decent options out there for adding a little cheese to your favorite dishes. You’ll likely use a whole lot less, which will indeed help shrink your foodprint. If you’re a real cheese lover, however, you may have a harder time finding something that can take the place of a big pile of dairy mozzarella on pizza. But it’s worth giving them a try, being mindful of how much you use. And if you have a high-end cheese habit, try some of the new artisan types. They’ve been getting raves from vegans and non-vegans alike.

Many vegans also recommended nutritional yeast (also called “nooch”), which they use in place of grated parmesan on pasta and to add flavor and nutrition to soups and other dishes. (Fortified versions are a good source of B vitamins, lacking in most vegan diets.) I’ve been enjoying this on popcorn for years, and far prefer it to the Go Veggie “parmesan.” Cheaper, too, and salt-free.

What will change for our family after this experiment? I’m certainly going to try to use less dairy cheese going forward (and perhaps try nutritional yeast in cooked dishes where I would normally sprinkle cheese), but I doubt I’ll replace it with any of the alternatives we sampled. Favoring dishes with spices that don’t go with cheese (Indian- or Asian-inspired rather than Italian) will help. Should one or more of us decide to go vegan, I may change my tune and choose some cheese-like substance over none at all. But I certainly wouldn’t add much of these highly-processed, often soy-based replacements to our daily meals. A major reason many choose a vegan diet is health, and I doubt a diet heavy in cheese replacements is terrific on that score.

But perhaps as the artisan varieties go mainstream, they’ll scratch that cheese itch. Or I’ll venture to try some of the tempting recipes for nut-based cheeses some resourceful vegans have developed.

Any way you slice it, less cheese is probably the way to go.

Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at her new blog, HealthyGreenSavvy.com.
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  • Amanda

    I really think there’s a lot more to look at here than the so often-touted methane emissions from dairy cattle. Yes, if you are buying mass-produced cheese made from cows on CAFO farms that never see the light of day, are fed pesticide-laden grains instead of their natural diet, and are pumped full of antibiotics, it’s a problem. But if you are careful to choose quality cheese from farmers who keep their cows on pasture and practice traditional cheese-making, then it is just as satisfying to eat less of this good-quality cheese as it is to eat large quantities of a typical grocery store cheese. The flavor is better, the nutrient profile is better, and you know you’re supporting someone who cares about the health of his animals and the environment. Considering that the vast majority of these non-dairy cheeses are produced using soy, which is almost always GMO and laced with toxic glyphosate, why would you even want to eat this compared to a good-quality, local, artisanal cheese? To sum up, eat less and not as frequently of a good-quality cheese, rather than try to keep consumption of lesser-quality cheeses high.

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