For many people, the hardest things about going vegan is giving up cheese.
Food manufacturers have desperately tried to recreate the creamy taste and moist texture — without the dairy.
But as well as not tasting like the real thing, vegan cheeses are also worse for your health, according to an expert. Plant-based substitutes have ‘little nutritional value’ and contain far more bad fats than the original.
And it’s because manufacturers try too hard to make vegan cheese look, taste and even melt like the real deal, according to nutritionist Richard Hoffman.
Alternatives are often made using plant oils that are high in saturated fat and bad cholesterol and void of any vitamins or minerals.
Eating too much could raise the risk of heart disease and other health problems, like weak bones, according to Mr Hoffman, from Hertfordshire University.
Ditching dairy is often cited as one of the most difficult parts of following a plant-based diets — with vegans having to source alternative cheese, chocolate and milk. But while those who are meat-free may cite the health benefits of their diet, one nutritionist has cautioned that opting for vegan cheese could raise the risk of heart disease, diabetes and poor bone health
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS
• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count
• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain
• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on
• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options
• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts
• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day
• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide
He said many people expect the vegan substitute to be ‘as nutritious as dairy cheese’.
‘But because many manufacturers are focused on making the cheese taste, look and even melt like dairy cheese, this is rarely the case,’ he warned.
The number of vegans in the UK quadrupled to 600,000 between 2014 and 2019, according to the Vegan Society.
Dozens of alternative cheeses are now available in supermarkets as a result, including those made by Applewood, Sheese, Vitalite, Violife and Ilchester Vegan.
They can cost more than twice as much as traditional versions.
Starch and vegetable oils — such as coconut oil and palm oil — are the main ingredients in vegan cheese and make them resemble the real thing.
But these have ‘little nutritional value’, Mr Hoffman said in The Conversation.
The gut breaks down starch into sugar, with too much leading to weight gain, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
And vegetable oils are ‘even worse’, as despite claims that coconut oil is healthy, it is ‘almost entirely’ saturated fat, he said.
Lauric acid, the main type of saturated fat in coconut oil, pushes up levels of ‘bad cholesterol’ known as low-density lipoprotein (LDL). This can increase the risk of heart disease.
Just one small 30g portion of coconut oil-based vegan cheese can contain a third of a person’s daily saturated fat allowance.
However, vegans can fare slightly better by consuming plant-based cheddar that uses palm oil.
Around half of the fat in palm oil is saturated, compared to 90 per cent in coconut oil. But palmitic acid, the main saturated fat in palm oil, also drives up the risk of heart disease.
While the real thing is also high in saturated fat, it is not linked to a high risk of heart disease.
Scientists believe this may be down to the saturated fat occurring naturally in cheese not being absorbed by the body as much as those in oils and meats.
Those eating vegan cheese may also miss out on the nutritional benefits of dairy cheese, which naturally contains protein, calcium, iodine, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
Manufacturers need to add these nutrients to their vegan cheese for consumers to get the same benefits — but not all do so, Mr Hoffman said.
‘While the occasional slice of vegan cheese is unlikely to do any harm, relying on it as a replacement for dairy could have costs to your health,’ he said.
A 12-week study by researchers at the University of Helsinki saw 136 volunteers follow one of three diets containing different amounts of plant-based protein. Those who replaced dairy with vegan alternatives saw their bone health deteriorate.
Mr Hoffman said this was probably down to low vitamin D and calcium intake but more research is needed to discover the long-term health consequences of not eating dairy.
While some may be vegan for health benefits, these come from following diets rich in fruit, vegetables, nuts and pulses.
So it is ‘important for vegans to watch the number of ultra-processed food alternatives they eat’, Mr Hoffman said.
However, he noted that some vegan cheeses may be healthier than others if they use cashew nuts.
These versions tend have more protein and less salt and saturated fat, Mr Hoffmann said. Although they are more expensive – costing around £8 per 200g compared to £1.25 for a usual block of cheddar.