For many people who go vegan, one of the hardest things is to give up cheese. Fortunately, thanks to the growing popularity of veganism, food producers have begun to produce a wider range of vegan cheeses – with some success in copying everything people love most about cheese, including its texture and flavor. However, not all vegan cheeses are equal – and many have little nutritional value.
People who buy vegan cheese can expect it to be just as nutritious as dairy cheese. But because many producers are focused on making the cheese taste, look and even melt like dairy cheese, this is rarely the case. The main ingredients in many vegan cheeses are starch and vegetable oils – usually coconut oil, or sometimes palm oil.
Starch and oil can give vegan cheeses their texture, but they have little nutritional value. For example, when we eat starch, it is broken down in our gut into sugar. Over time, too much starch can potentially lead to weight gain or diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
The vegetable oils in vegan cheese are even worse. Coconut oil consists almost exclusively of saturated fat. Some types of saturated fat increase blood levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, which can increase the risk of heart disease.
This is the case with lauric acid, the main type of saturated fat in coconut oil. Despite some claims online that coconut is healthy, lauric acid significantly increases LDL cholesterol levels. It also increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Due to the high levels of coconut oil in some vegan cheeses, even a modest portion (30 g) is about one-third of a person’s total recommended daily intake of saturated fat.
Palm oil, found in some vegan cheeses, does a little better as an alternative ingredient. About half of the fat in palm oil is saturated fat – mostly a type of saturated fat called palmitic acid. Like lauric acid, this also increases the risk of coronary heart disease. And while some manufacturers claim to use “sustainable” palm oil, it is uncertain how sustainable these products actually are.
While dairy cheese also has a high content of saturated fats, there is good evidence that consuming them is not associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. It is unclear why this is the case, but it may be that the saturated fat in dairy cheese is not absorbed by the body as much as in other foods, such as meat or coconut oil.
Many people may also expect vegan cheese, like dairy cheese, to be a good source of protein. But vegan cheeses consisting of vegetable oils and starch have little or no protein.
The amounts and types of vitamins and minerals that vegan cheeses contain also vary considerably, as it is up to the manufacturer to add these during production. As a result, unlike dairy cheese, most vegan cheeses contain little or no calcium. They also often lack other important micronutrients found in dairy cheese, such as iodine, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
While an occasional slice of vegan cheese is unlikely to do any harm, it can cost your health to rely on it as a substitute for dairy products. In a clinical study, individuals who replaced animal-based dairy and eggs with vegan alternatives for 12 weeks had poorer bone health at the end of the study compared with those who ate animal-based dairy and eggs. This was probably due to lower vitamin D and calcium intake. But more studies like this are needed to better determine the long-term health consequences for vegans who do not consume dairy products.
However, that is not all bad news. Some vegan cheeses may be healthier than others depending on their ingredients – for example, those that use cashews. These products usually have higher levels of protein and lower levels of sodium and saturated fat than other types of vegan cheese. But they can also be more expensive than the other types.
Of course, there are many reasons why a person may want to take a vegan diet – either for environmental reasons or to improve their health. However, while numerous studies have found that vegan diets can be healthy, this is typically only true for people whose diets are high in natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.
As such, it is important for vegans to keep an eye on the number of ultra-processed food alternatives they eat (such as vegan cheese), as these can have many of the same negative health effects (such as heart disease and cancer) that ultra-processed foods have for non-vegans.
This means carefully checking the content of vegan cheese products (and other vegan alternatives) to minimize the number of harmful ingredients, such as saturated fat, that vegans regularly consume. Vegans should also focus on getting essential micronutrients such as vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin D from vitamin supplements or whole foods.