A few weeks ago, I announced I was fed up of the awful menstrual cramps that affect me every month and dived into some research to find out whether I could tackle them by making changes to my diet.
I found out that some foods can raise our levels of prostaglandins; natural chemicals in our bodies that play a role in our menstrual cycles. When our levels of PGE2 prostaglandins are too high, it can cause inflammation, leading to period pains.
And one of the food groups that can cause high levels of prostaglandins is dairy.
Although I don’t drink milk anyway (I’m a black coffee fan), I do eat plenty of cheese and yoghurt. So, this month I’ve been trying to avoid dairy to see if that has an effect on my cramps.
For the most part, I’ve been trying to cook meals that contain more of the foods that help to fight menstrual cramps, such as walnuts, legumes, vegetables, dark chocolate, and oily fish. But every now and then I do get a craving for the comfort of melted cheese.
The solution? Vegan cheese.
Now, if you are a diehard cheese lover (like my husband), the idea of vegan cheese might be a bit upsetting. After all, it can’t even be marketed as cheese, but only as a ‘cheese alternative’.
But if, like me, you are open to new foods if they are better for our health (and for the planet), you might be wondering if vegan cheese is worth trying.
To help answer this question, I’m doing a highly scientific analysis* of three of the leading UK brands. I chose these three because:
a) they were available in my local supermarket
b) they are all cheddar-style substitutes, so it felt like I was comparing like with like
*Potentially not all that scientific at all
The contenders, in no particular order, are Applewood Vegan, Violife Epic Mature, and Vitalite Dairy Free Block. Let’s see how they compare…
Is vegan cheese healthy?
Let’s face it, cheese is not generally the first thing you reach for when you are trying to eat healthily. It is more of a delicious indulgence than a health food. Vegan cheese is the same – if your primary reason for going vegan is your health, then cheese alternatives may not be your go-to food.
To create a cheese-like food from non-dairy ingredients, manufacturers have to combine some slightly unusual ingredients. All three of the brands I tried are made with coconut oil, starch (from potato and maize), and various colourings and flavourings. So, if you are avoiding processed foods, vegan cheese is not for you.
Of the three I tried, the Vitalite Block had the shortest ingredient list, but honestly there isn’t a lot to choose between these three. The ingredients are pretty similar in all of them.
In terms of nutrients, I compared them with Cathedral City Mature Cheddar, which is a dairy-based brand I buy now and then. The table below shows the nutrient break down per 100g.
|Fats (g)||34.9 (21.7 saturated)||24.6 (20.9 saturated)||24 (22 saturated)||20.2 (17.3 saturated)|
|Calcium (µg)||739||282||Not listed||281|
|B12 (µg)||Not listed||2.7||2.5||2.1|
I was disappointed to find that the Violife one didn’t list its calcium content. Especially with the recent EPIC-Oxford study into vegans being more at risk of bone fractures, many people who don’t eat dairy are interested in upping their calcium intake. It is encouraging though that all three are supplemented with vitamin B12, which is the one nutrient a vegan diet doesn’t contain naturally.
If you are concerned with calories and saturated fat, the vegan cheeses beat the dairy cheddar hands-down. But when we look at protein and calcium levels, the dairy cheddar is the better choice.
So whether vegan cheese is healthier or not depends on the rest of your diet – if you tend to have too much saturated fat in your diet, choosing a vegan cheese to replace your usual dairy cheddar might help to bring that down. But if you are looking to increase your protein or calcium levels, this isn’t the best switch.
Of course, you might be choosing dairy-free alternatives for animal welfare, environmental friendliness, or because you have a health condition that means dairy isn’t a good choice for you – in that case you already know that vegan cheese is the right option.
On that basis, I’d be inclined to choose the Applewood – it has slightly higher levels of protein, B12, and calcium, and slightly lower levels of salt and saturated fat. It has higher calories, but I’m not personally interested in weight-loss and it is only marginally more than the Violife one.
Does vegan cheese melt well?
Back when most vegan cheese was made from nuts, finding one that melted nicely was a mission. The good news nowadays is that the clever vegan food scientists have come up with solutions to give us dairy-free alternatives that still melt well.
Since I generally eat cheese melted on a wrap, pizza, or on top of pasta, I was especially interested to see how each of these three vegan cheese options would melt. To test this, I melted each of them in the oven on top of potato wedges, in the microwave on top of a wrap, and sprinkled a grated handful over hot pasta. Not all on the same day, I should add.
Disappointingly, none of them melted over the pasta – apparently it takes longer for vegan cheese to melt so you’d need to do this in the oven as a pasta bake to get it to work. All three melted brilliantly in the oven and in the microwave. I can’t choose a winner here because they performed pretty much the same.
Compared with dairy cheese, the melted vegan cheese has a different texture. Less – chewy? It is hard to describe. All three released some oil when melted but didn’t tase greasy.
So the answer? Yes, vegan cheese melts well, as long as you give it enough heat.
Does vegan cheese taste good?
Ultimately, this is the real test for me. I don’t care how good for me something is, if it tastes nasty, I’m not going to eat it. Especially when it comes to something like cheese (or cheese substitutes) that are all about comfort and flavour.
Obviously, this is completely subjective – what I think of these vegan cheeses might differ from what you think of them. But as a cheese-lover, you can trust that I’m coming at it with a healthy degree of scepticism.
So. Is vegan cheese tasty? The answer is a qualified yes. All three of these brands have a nice flavour, although they are fairly different. The Applewood is the winner for me – it has a smoky, paprika-enhanced flavour that I enjoyed. But I’d happily eat the Violife too, which tastes like a very, very mild cheddar (although with a slightly different aftertaste). The Vitalite is a bit bland, but perfectly acceptable.
All three tasted better melted than cold to me, but then I think the same of most dairy cheeses too.
Do they taste as good as real cheese? Well… no. They don’t. It is partly down to the texture. The vegan cheeses are smooth and slightly soft in texture. They can’t replicate the crumbliness of real cheddar. They also just didn’t have that same sharpness or depth of flavour.
Having said that, if you are avoiding dairy and eating vegan cheese helps to fill a gap, it is a perfectly tasty food. I think it might help to think of vegan cheese as a different food group entirely to dairy cheese, rather than a straight up alternative.
I have definitely found that having some dairy-free cheese alternatives in my fridge has been helpful in keeping me away from dairy. Although it is early days yet, I am seeing an improvement in my menstrual cramps, which was my whole aim in staying away from cheese in the first place. If eating vegan cheese occasionally makes that more sustainable, I’m all for it.
Is vegan cheese good for the environment?
I’ve not gone into the ethics of eating dairy in this post, since it is a whole discussion of its own. But I am trying to reduce my reliance on animal products for the sake of the planet as well as for my own health.
When it comes to food choices, I doubt that the coconut oil and processed ingredients in vegan cheese are as good for the environment as eating locally grown, organic vegetables and fruits.
However, it does avoid the issues with animal welfare, high water usage, and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the dairy industry.
I started this post with the aim of answering the question of whether or not vegan cheese is good.
Although the answer is quite subjective, I’d say yes, just not quite as tasty as dairy cheese. Definitely it will remain a feature in my diet for the foreseeable future.
Of the three brands I set out to test, the winner for me is the Applewood Vegan. It has the most flavour and looks to be the best on nutrients too. The Violife Epic Mature comes second and I will definitely buy this again. Honestly, I probably won’t bother with the Vitalite in the future. It just wasn’t as tasty as the other two.
Tong, T.Y.N., Appleby, P.N., Armstrong, M.E.G. et al. Vegetarian and vegan diets and risks of total and site-specific fractures: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. BMC Med 18, 353 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-020-01815-3
Nutritional information taken from the packets of Applewood Vegan, Violife Extra Mature, Vitalite Dairy Free Block, and Cathedral City Mature Cheddar