Why vegetable cheeses (often) have more faults than virtues

Becoming vegan means in particular banishing all products of animal origin from your diet. But for many people who choose this lifestyle, cheese is one of the hardest foods to give up.

Luckily for them, the growing popularity of veganism has prompted producers to increase the variety of vegan cheeses marketed. They even succeeded, to some extent, in replicating what people like about this food, including its texture and taste. However, not all vegan cheeses are created equal – and many have low nutritional value.

​What are vegan cheeses made of?

People who buy vegan cheese expect it to be as nutritious as cheese made from milk. But this is rarely the case. Indeed, many manufacturers focus on ensuring that vegan cheese tastes, looks and even feels the same as traditional cheese.

For this reason, many vegan cheeses are made with starch and vegetable oils – usually coconut oil or, sometimes, palm oil. Indeed, these ingredients give vegan cheeses a decent texture. But the problem is that their nutritional value is low.

Nutritionally speaking, not all vegan cheeses are created equal
Nutritionally speaking, not all vegan cheese is created equal – Naty M. / Shutterstock (via The Conversation)

Ingested starch, for example, is broken down into sugar in the intestine. However, over time, excess starch can lead to weight gain and even diseases such as type 2 diabetes or heart disease.

​Amount of saturated fatty acids

Vegetable oils are even more problematic. Coconut oil, for example, is composed almost entirely of saturated fatty acids. However, some of these saturated fatty acids are linked to an increase in the level of “bad” cholesterol (LDL – Low Density cholesterol), which can increase the risk of heart disease.

This is the case of lauric acid, the main saturated fatty acid present in coconut oil. Although some websites claim that coconut is good for your health, 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 serving size (30g) is about a third of the recommended daily allowance of saturated fat.

Some vegan cheeses contain palm oil, which isn’t much better. Indeed, about half of the fatty acids contained in palm oil are saturated fatty acids, mainly palmitic acid. Like lauric acid, it increases the risk of coronary heart disease. And although some manufacturers claim to use “sustainable” palm oil, it is not certain that it really is.

Vegan cheese from the Simply V brand containing almonds and produced without soy or palm oil
Vegan cheese from the Simply V brand containing almonds and produced without soy or palm oil – Marco Verch / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Although dairy cheeses are also high in saturated fatty acids, there is evidence that their consumption is not linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Why ? The explanation is not known with certainty, but one hypothesis is that our body assimilates the saturated fatty acids of classic cheese less well than those contained in other foods, such as meat or coconut oil.

​Lower nutritional value than conventional cheeses

Since vegan cheeses are made from vegetable oils and contain no starch, they contain little or no protein, making them a poorer source of protein than milk-based cheeses.

The amounts and types of vitamins and minerals they contain also vary greatly, as it is the manufacturer who must add them during production. So, unlike classic cheeses, most vegan cheeses contain little or no calcium. They are also often devoid of other important micronutrients such as iodine, vitamin B12 or vitamin D, which, on the other hand, are found in cheeses made from milk.

​Vegan cheese cannot replace dairy products

The occasional consumption of a slice of vegan cheese is unlikely to harm your health. On the other hand, replacing dairy products with this type of food can have deleterious consequences.

A “Vegan Camembert” from the German producer HappyCheese
A “Vegan Camembert” from the German producer HappyCheese – Mangostaniko / Wikimedia CC0 1.0

Participants in a clinical study replaced dairy products and eggs with vegan alternatives in their diet for twelve weeks. At the end of the experiment, their bone health was worse than that of the participants who had continued to eat eggs and dairy products. This result is probably explained by a lower intake of vitamin D and calcium. However, more such studies are needed to better establish the long-term health consequences of dairy-free vegans.

​Choose the right vegan cheese

The reasons for deciding to adopt a vegan diet can be varied, from environmental concerns to the desire to improve one’s health. Be aware, however, that while numerous studies have shown that vegan diets can be healthy, this is generally only true for people whose diets are rich in natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.

Above all, it is therefore important to choose the right vegan cheese. Indeed, some may be healthier than others, depending on the ingredients they contain. For example, cashew-based vegan cheeses are generally higher in protein and lower in sodium and saturated fat than other types of vegan cheese. However, they can also be more expensive…

A point to emphasize is that it is important to monitor the number of ultra-processed foods that enter our diet, including if it is vegan. Indeed, ultra-processed vegan foods (including vegan cheeses) can have the same negative health effects as other ultra-processed foods, including increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

For vegans, this means carefully checking the composition of cheese substitutes (and other substitutes in general), in order to minimize the number of harmful ingredients consumed on a regular basis (such as acids saturated fat). They also need to make sure they get all the micronutrients essential for good health, such as vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin D, whether through the foods they eat or through dietary supplements.

This review was written by Richard Hoffman, Lecturer in Nutritional Biochemistry at the University of Hertfordshire (England).
The original article was translated (from English) then published on the site of The Conversation.

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