What is Vegan Cheese?
Veganeese, Coconut Cheese, ‘Gary‘ – vegan cheese goes by many names, but it 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 and for a variety of good reasons. Many have adopted this way of life as a result of viral videos depicting some of the malpractice that exists in parts of the farming industry. Others have chosen to follow the diet purely for health or environmental reasons.
“Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants” – Michael Pollan
Although not a proponent of veganism, author and endocrinologist Dr Tim Spector recommends considering ‘flexitarianism’ or ‘part-time veganism’ as part of a healthier lifestyle. With a particular interest in gut health, Dr Spector adopts a predominantly plant based, fibrous diet. While he personally found becoming a full-time vegan difficult with regards to keeping up bioavailable B12 levels, he permits red meat just once or twice a month.
Are Vegan Alternatives Better?
Sainsbury’s recently released a new range of vegan cheese that has had the media in a frenzy. However while plant-based diets are healthy, the word ‘vegan’ is not necessarily synonymous with health.
There has been a surge in the number of vegan-friendly restaurants and cafes all over London, such as Farmacy and Farm Girl Cafe. These sell 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 the taste was surprisingly nice! However as soon as common pairings such as salmon, apples or grapes were added – neither the texture or taste seemed to fit (coconut salmon anyone?). From a taste sensation point of view – I’ll be holding off on the fondue.
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 their 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 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 role of phytoestrogens in humans in unclear and many conflicting studies as to (adverse) health effects 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 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 high fructose corn syrup – some of the biggest culprits of the obesity epidemic. Over consumption of this sugar (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, although they could have opted for healthier alternatives to some of the ingredients above.
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. 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 usually healthier. It is important to remember that these vegan cheeses are still highly manufactured and processed – and therefore may not be the best for you in comparison to fresh raw goods.