What is Vegan Cheese?
Veganeese, Coconut Cheese, ‘Gary‘ – vegan cheese adopts as many aliases, as it does visards. But this dairy-free alternative is usually a coconut oil and soya-based imposter that’s curated to impersonate our favourite curdled spreads.
The Vegan Movement:
Veganism is the latest in a series of much mocked popular health trends, fortified by moral might. Understandably, and admirably, many have adopted this way of life as a result of viral videos depicting some of the malpractice that still exists in parts of the food industry. Others have chosen to follow the guidelines purely on health or environmental grounds.
“Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants” – Michael Pollan
In The Diet Myth, author and endocrinologist Dr Tim Spector recommends considering flexitarianism (part-time veganism) as part of an all-round healthier lifestyle. With a particular interest in gut health, Dr Spector adopts a predominantly plant-based, fibrous diet rich in natural prebiotics. Finding that his personal experiments with the movement left him deficient in bioavailable B12, he allows for organic red meats just once or twice a month.
Are Vegan Alternatives Better?
If you want to compete in todays cut-throat global market, it pays to bear vegan credentials. However while many manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon for these benefits, the vegan label is not synonymous with health. There has been a surge in the number of vegan-friendly restaurants and cafes all over London, selling an array of foods free-from animal produce such as eggs, milk and butter – and mostly including vegan cakes, pastries and sweets…
The Taste Test:
Adopting a personalised bio-psycho-social n=1, I recently purchased the Sainsbury’s Free From Cream Cheese Spread and the Cheddar-Style With Caramelised Onion. In isolation, the taste is surprisingly nice. However as soon as common pairings such as salmon, apples or grapes are added – fruity coconut salmon is not a taste or texture that feels like a fit. From a flavour to savour point of view, I’ll hold off on the fondue.
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 – none of these claims have been evaluated by the FDA. Nevertheless, it does contain copious amounts of lauric acid, a fatty acid with some immune-boosting benefits.
Modified Potato Starch: mimicking the craft of vegan ‘cheese’, this ingredient is not necessarily derived from potatoes, and seems to be an umbrella term for different base-foods that can be modified to produce starch, such as corn. The starch-derivatives are physically, enzymatically or chemically treated to alter their structural properties – 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 from the original bean and is easily digestible. Some studies have shown that soya bean isolate can reduce bad cholesterol due to phytoestrogens, although the evidence is not very strong. The overall role of phytoestrogens in humans remains unclear, and many conflicting studies as to (adverse) health effects exist (because they mimic hormones).
Maize Starch: corn starch is from grain or wheat and acts as a thickening agent. It is lacking in nutritional value.
Glycerine (humectant): fat used as a sweeter, and to extend shelf-life while keeping food moist.
Sodium Lactate (acidity regulator): 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 cheap high fructose corn syrups. They are some of the biggest culprits of the obesity epidemic. Over consumption of this sugary drug has been linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes.
As a dairy-free substitute, coconut-oil based vegan cheese seems relatively harmless in moderation (an excessive amount of moderation). But with such an abundance of resources at our disposal, manufacturers could easily have opted for more nutritious alternatives to many of the ingredients above. However when compared to their cheap, fast, and addictive counterparts, these rarely equate to larger profit-margins.
One disadvantage of milk is that in some countries (currently not the EU) hormones are still used to make cows produce larger volumes of milk. Veganeese is also a great alternative for those with allergies or lactose intolerance. But it can be lacking in a lot of the calcium, vitamin D and potassium of dairy cheese. Whether the fibre content can match the gut-boosting benefits of unpasteurised whole milks and cheeses also depends on product and source.
As a general rule, high volumes of highly-processed foods tend to be unhealthy, whereas minimally processed, raw, organic produce is usually healthier, and more environmentally friendly. Many of these vegan cheeses are still highly manufactured and processed – and therefore may still not be the best for you, especially in comparison to every grandmother’s DIY home economics.
On a larger scale, some of these factors speak to a wider systemic issue that narrowly focuses on the bottom-line (quantity). Under a reductionist lens, a redefining of value comes from mechanism-holism integration, which rebalances for quality. For example, a surge in demand for veganism based on health and environmental grounds, should make society healthier by increasing the production of vegan produce. But in a quantitatively reductionist model, short-cuts are leveraged that mean more of the same ethos – mass-produced, processed produce but with a vegan label on it.
This often does little to boost health or welfare, as the primary focus is still on commercial viability or survival and maximising profit margins. Redefining wealth means taking a deeper look at our frameworks and the ways in which governance, incentives and how we as a society define value impacts processes and outcomes.