It’s creamy, melty, gooey, and 100-percent addictive. We’re talking about vegan cheese. As little as five years ago, one would be stretching the truth to describe most vegan cheeses in this fashion. Unfortunately, many brands mass-produced their versions of dairy-free cheeses before the products were ready, souring the food category’s reputation in the minds of vegans and skeptics alike. Over the years, recipes have been reformulated, refined, and at times completely reinvented—making amends for the somewhat rubbery, bland, and generally off-putting product that was vegan cheese of yesteryear. On the whole, vegan cheese is now something to be celebrated. Here is the 411 of vegan cheese—from how it’s made to the very best brands.
What’s wrong with dairy cheese?
The short answer is: there are a lot of glaring issues with dairy-based cheese, both in terms of one’s health and the environment. There’s also the looming problem of repeatedly impregnating nearly 10 million dairy cows, taking away their babies within 48 hours of birth, and cutting their lives short by 10-15 years. But beyond that, let’s talk about health. Cheese is coagulated breast milk. While this breast milk can be taken from a number of animals—sheep, goat, camel, etc.—the vast majority of cheese consumed in America comes from cows. Cow’s breast milk contains 15 different female sex hormones including estrogen, progesterone, and cortisol—all of which are transferred to the human body upon consumption and react with that body’s hormones in a negative way. These excess bovine hormones can knock the body’s hormones off-balance, which may explain why milk and other dairy-based foods are so often linked to hormone-dependent cancers such as breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer, according to Dr. Neal Barnard and a mounting body of scientific evidence. IGF-1, a growth hormone also found in dairy milk, is also known to trigger excess cell growth and set the stage for cancer.
Dairy cheese is also extremely high in harmful fats. As a form of concentrated milk, the levels of saturated and trans fats found in dairy are magnified with each bite. In the US, cheese is the largest source of saturated fat intake in American diets according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey published in the Nutrition Journal. Both saturated and trans fats present health issues—not only in terms of unhealthy weight gain, but in regards to cardiovascular health. Excess fats can quickly build up inside arterial walls and either slow or completely impede blood flow, triggering a heart attack or stroke. Decreased blood flow may also have other ramifications, as the body is not able to deliver oxygen and nutrients as efficiently to cells as possible. At the very least, this can cause sluggishness and less-than-optimal bodily function.
For those less concerned with their health but identify as sustainability-minded, dairy cheese is still not a greenlight food. Cheese is an extremely inefficient and resource-intensive product. It takes approximately 10 pounds of milk to make one potent little pound of cheese. On an individual serving level, one cup of milk is roughly equivalent to a single slice of processed cheese or 1.5 ounces of natural cheese. The toll of cheese production on the environment is significant. For a bit of perspective, eating four ounces of cheese contributes the same amount of carbon emissions as driving 3.5 miles. Alternatively, eating just 60 percent less cheese and replacing that with four to six servings of beans could help keep the global temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius by 2050. In a nutshell, the environmental impact of dairy is a compound reflection of the devastation of the dairy industry, which can be found in our article, Is Milk Bad for You?. Cow’s milk is bad, but cheese is certainly worse.
What’s in vegan cheese?
The ingredients of vegan cheese largely depend on the style of cheese—different foods lend themselves to different flavors and applications. Starting from the top down, gourmet or artisanal-labeled vegan cheeses are traditionally made with a blend of cashews, oil, plant-based cultures, and spices. The cashews provide the creaminess of a soft cheese (think brie, feta, mozzarella, and chevere) while the cultures add the funk—that addictive characteristic that makes cheese so impossible to resist. While not listed on the ingredient label, time is another essential component of most artisan vegan cheeses. Those cultures need time to ferment and get funky.
Every day cheeses—those that come in shreds and slices—tend to include oils, starches, nut milk or water, lactic acid (vegan), and natural flavorings or spices. The ingredients for these processed options vary widely from brand to brand and are generally more extensive than artisan vegan cheeses. The key in producing the perfect solid texture that will also melt is nailing the balance between starch and oil content. While not a whole foods approach, these ingredients get the job done.
Vegan cheese nutrition
Like dairy-based cheese, vegan cheese should be enjoyed in moderation for those looking to optimize their health. It certainly has a place in one’s diet, but it probably shouldn’t have a place in every meal of the day. Of course, vegan cheese nutrition depends on the brand. A single serving of gourmet vegan cheese (30 grams) contains about 120-130 calories, 11 grams of fat, three grams of protein, five grams of carbs, and one gram of fiber. Non-dairy shreds and slices tend to be a bit lower in fat and calories due to the fact that they’re more starch-based and less nut-based. Most vegan cheese shreds clock in at a ballpark 70-100 calories, seven grams of fat, one gram of protein, and no fiber. These more processed cheeses also tend to be higher in sodium, though it ranges significantly from brand to brand. Vegan cheese is high in fat (it’s necessary to replicate that unctuous, creamy mouthfeel of dairy cheese), but it’s free of heart disease-inducing trans fat and cholesterol. It’s also free of bovine hormones, IGF-1, and foreign, inflammation-triggering compounds such as Neu5gc and D-galactose. Is vegan cheese healthier than dairy cheese? Yes. Definitely yes. Is vegan cheese a health food? We wouldn’t go that far. Enjoy your cheese board at parties and indulge in a crispy, gooey, buttery grilled cheese by all means, but perhaps not every day.
How to make vegan cheese
If you are craving cheesy flavor on the regular, there are plenty of homemade options that happen to be a bit less caloric and fat-laden. Cheeses made with vegetables such as butternut squash, carrots, potatoes, and sweet potatoes provide an ample amount of micronutrients and antioxidants without adding harmful fats or excess calories to your diet. These cheeses are made by blending cooked veggies (or tofu!) with broth, nutritional yeast, spices, and cornstarch. The smooth mixture is then heated on the stove which activates the starch and turns the silky concoction into a stretchy, gooey, consistency perfect for pasta or nachos. Check out these 5 Easy Nut-Free Cheese Recipes to try this method at home tonight.
To make next-level, cheeseboard-worthy cheese, one has to take a tip from the cheesemongers. The process of aging and fermentation isn’t just for cow’s milk—this practice works with plant-based milks, too. Vegan cheese making is a science, and many brands have nailed it. All cheese begins as a liquid. A plant-milk is made from soaked and strained nuts (typically cashews) then blended with coconut oil, spices and flavoring agents, and vegan live cultures. The mixture is then placed into a mold, dehydrated, and aged in a cool space for days, even months. The informative cookbook This Cheese Is Nuts! is a solid resource for those interested in making their own vegan cheese at home.
15 best vegan cheese brands
There’s good vegan cheese but there is also great vegan cheese. The kind that will make your eyes roll back. The kind that will get your skeptical friends to finally admit vegan food actually tastes good. Whether you’re looking for a stretchy cheese that truly melts for supremely good quesadillas, molten queso to smother over nachos, or a sophisticated cheese wheel that will make your party the talk of your friend group, there’s a vegan cheese for that. Here’s what to nab the next time you’re at the grocery store (or shopping online).
For a neutral-tasting cheese that goes with almost everything, check out Chao’s Creamy Original in block or slice form. While mild on its own, this white cheese adds that creamy element and a touch of funk to sandwiches, salads, and flatbreads. The Chao brand falls under Field Roast—the makers of some of our favorite vegan sausages and buffalo wings—so you can be confident in the quality.
2 Follow Your Heart
This 50-year-old company makes more than just Vegenaise, and it does it well. The shreds, slices, and blocks are terrific as-is or melted on a beefy vegan patty, gooey grilled cheese, or luscious pasta sauce. The variety is extensive—from feta crumbles to smoked gouda slices. We encourage you to try them all and find your favorite. Oh, and pro tip for that grilled cheese: spread a thin layer of Vegenaise on the outside of each bread slice for the crispiest, melt-in-your-mouth bite of sandwich you’ve ever eaten.
3 Kite Hill
The search for the best vegan cream cheese ends with Kite Hill. The almond milk-based vegan cheese company makes a perfect replica of thick, New York-style cream cheese that won’t weigh you down. Kite Hill’s ricotta (and ricotta-filled pasta) are also products to check out if you’re in the mood for gourmet Italian.
We wouldn’t be surprised if we found this crave-worthy vegan queso in stadiums one day. It’s thick, a little salty, and perfectly spicy. Surprisingly, it’s made with ingredients everyone can pronounce such as potatoes, carrots, jalapeños, nutritional yeast, and spices. Heat up and drown a pile of tortilla chips with it. Finger-licking is unavoidable.
5 Misha’s Kind Foods
These cheese spreads are Jay-Z-approved. The entertainer invested in this Black-owned brand, along with NBA hotshot Chris Paul. Sold in tubs, each of the eight flavors add texture and taste to sandwiches, avocado toast, bagels, and flatbreads. Fan favorites include the caper-infused Lox and umami-laden Black Truffle.
Launched in 2012, this vegan cheese company may not have been the first non-dairy cheese on the market, but it is still a pioneer in its own right. Miyoko’s mozzarella and gourmet cheese wheels were the first vegan cheese options to really turn heads and reach mass distribution. For many, Miyoko’s is the gateway cheese. The brand has expanded into slices, shreds, spreads, blocks, cream cheese, and even kid’s cheese sticks, but the wheels are where it truly shines. Popular flavors include the Smoked English Farmhouse, Winter Truffle, and Garlic Herb.
7 So Delicious
So Delicious seems to do it all—including vegan cheese. The behemoth of a company has dozens of products to its name, but the dairy-free shreds are particularly worth noting. Best in melted form, the Mexican-style Shreds are ideal for burritos, enchiladas, and nachos, but they’re good enough to enjoy as-is on top of a taco salad.
If “special occasion cheese” is a thing, SriMu is most certainly it. This small-batch, artisan cheese is not cheap, but each carefully crafted variety packs an overwhelming punch of flavor in each un-brie-lievably luxurious mouthful. If you’re looking for a distinctive vegan bleu cheese or impressive, truffle-infused camembert, check out this brand. Pro tip: the cheese subscription makes for a surprisingly unique gift for any cheese obsessive.
A popular and widely available brand in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and throughout Europe, Greece-based Violife comes in shreds, slices, blocks, and more, impressing people with the flavor and meltability. The next time you’re craving some comfort food, try the Colby Jack Shreds on homemade nachos with the works.
Daiya is one of the early influencers of the vegan cheese movement. Founded in 2008, the brand now offers a wide variety of dairy-free items including shreds, blocks, slices, and a plethora of frozen convenience foods. Its new Cutting Board Collection is a step above both in taste and texture. We’ve been using the Mexican 4 Cheeze Style Blend in quesadillas—the meltability is unmatched.
11 Trader Joe’s
Who would have guessed that by 2022, Trader Joe’s would have its own range of vegan cheeses? The grocer carries its own brand of non-dairy slices and shreds along with popular brands such as vegan Boursin and Miyoko’s. Finally, TJ’s can be a one-stop shop.
12 Parmela Creamery
Parmela uses the classic cheesemaking processes to transform cashews into cultured vegan cheeses with just the right amount of funk. Try melting the Sharp Cheddar slices on a plant-based patty or layering them on a thick vegan cold cut sandwich.
13 GOOD PLANeT
Offering a variety of familiar flavors, GOOD PLANeT delivers dairy-free slices, shreds, and wedges that are all soy-free. The wedges are the latest innovation and remind us of the snackable BabyBel cheeses of our pre-vegan days.
14 Forager Project
While Forager has been around for years, it just recently stepped into the vegan cheese category. In lieu of shreds or slices, this vegan brand went after a rarer cheese product—queso fresco. While the product looks a bit like pellets in the bag, it melts adequately and adds that gooey, cheesy texture to enchiladas and chiles Rellenos.
Based on European cheese-making traditions, Treeline’s nut-based cheeses are cultured and aged to perfection. Styles range from French-style soft cheeses to slices and shreds and cheese wheels. You could create a wonderfully varied and delicious vegan cheese board with just a few of Treeline’s outstanding products, accompanied, of course, by some jams, fried fruits, sliced baguette, and crackers.