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What is vegan cheese? Veganeese, Coconut Cheese, ‘Gary‘ – whatever you decide to call it, vegan cheese isn’t actually cheese at all. This dairy-free alternative is usually a coconut oil and soya-based alternative that has been created to mimic our favourite creamy spreads and cheddars.
The Vegan movement: Veganism seems to be the latest popular health trend at the moment and for a variety of good reasons. Whilst many have adopted this way of life as a result of the spread of awareness of the cruelty to animals and malpractice that still exists in some parts of the farming industry globally, others have chosen to follow a more restrictive diet purely for health or environmental reasons.
I personally am not a vegan, however after reading Tim Spector’s book ‘The Diet Myth’, which I highly recommend, becoming a ‘part time vegan’ definitely sounds like something to consider. Tim Spector is a well respected endocrinologist with a particular interest in gut health, he himself adopts a mainly plant based, highly fibrous diet. However becoming a full time vegan was anecdotally difficult with regards to keeping B12 levels satisfactory and so Dr Spector decided to allow for red meat once a month.
Are vegan alternatives healthier? Sainsbury’s recently released a new range of Vegan cheeses that has had the media in a frenzy. Firstly, it is important to remember that whilst predominantly plant-based diets are indeed very healthy, the word ‘vegan’ is not necessarily synonymous with health. There has been a surge in the number of vegan-friendly restaurants and cafes popping up all over London such as Farmacy and Farm Girl Cafe. These sell all kinds of foods free-from animal produce such as eggs, milk and butter but just because a donut is Vegan, does not mean it’s good for you! It will still be full of the refined carbohydrates and sugars found in your average Dunkin’.
The taste test: I recently purchased the Sainsbury’s ‘Free From cream cheese spread’ and ‘Cheddar-style with caramelised onion’, on their own I have to say the taste was surprisingly nice! However as soon as they were paired with foods I would normally eat with cheese such as salmon, apples or grapes – something just didn’t taste quite right (coconut salmon anyone?). I also assume that if you heated or cooked with these cheeses, the molecular interactions would not be the same as with dairy-based versions and you would probably be left equally disappointed. After my experience with the coconut smoked salmon, I didn’t personally venture into cooking territory.
The Ingredients (found in the cheddar and garlic spread cheeses):
COCONUT OIL: one of the better ingredients included in vegan cheeses. Touted as having anti-ageing benefits, antimicrobial properties, anti-cancer and weight loss effects – although none of these claims have actually been evaluated by the FDA. Nevertheless it does contain copious amounts of lauric acid, the fatty acid found in breast milk that gives babies many immune boosting health benefits.
MODIFIED POTATO STARCH: despite the name this does not necessarily derive from potatoes, it seems to be an umbrella term for different base foods that can be used to produce starch such as corn. The starch derivatives are physically, enzymatically or chemically treated to modify its structural properties… this is mostly for texture.
SOYA PROTEIN CONCENTRATE: made from soya beans that have been de-hulled and de-fatted. This produces soy flour, concentrates and isolates. The good thing is the concentrate retains a lot of the fibre form the original bean and are very digestible. Some studies have shown that soya bean isolate can reduce bad cholesterol, due to phytoestrogens although the evidence is not very strong. The role of phytoestrogens in humans in unclear and many conflicting studies exist.
MAIZE STARCH: corn starch is from grain / wheat and acts as a thickening agent. It is lacking in nutritional value.
GLYCERINE (Humectant): A fat used as a sweeter, to extend shelf life and to keep food moist.
SODIUM LACTATE (acidity regulators): The salt of lactic acid which is made by fermenting sugar. E325 is a preservative
FRUCTOSE: In high quantities fructose increases cholesterol and visceral fat, modern processed diets arguably contain far too much fructose and high fructose corn syrup.
The verdict: As a dairy-free substitute, coconut-oil based vegan cheese may be relatively healthy. One disadvantage of milk is that in some countries (currently not the EU, although now that Brexit has happened who knows what to expect in your milk) Hormones are still used to make cows produce larger volumes of milk, which can then be found in the milk itself and theoretically affect those consuming it. Veganeese is also a great alternative for those with allergies or lactose intolerance. However it will be lacking in a lot of the calcium, vitamin D and potassium of normal cheese. It also will not benefit the diversity of gut flora in the way that unpasteurised cheeses can.
As a general rule, highly processed and manufactured foods tend to be unhealthy whereas natural, raw, organic produce is healthy. It is important to remember that these vegan cheeses are still highly manufactured and therefore may not be the best for you in comparison to fresh raw produce, however as always – it’s all about everything in moderation.