Should you be eating non-dairy 'cheese'?

With the rising popularity of plant-based eating and vegan eating, the non-dairy animal-free ‘cheese’ market is growing in mainstream supermarkets.

But how good for you is non-dairy ‘cheese’? 

I have looked at non-dairy ‘cheese’ from the angle of nutrition: the nutritional profiles, ingredients lists and potential health benefits or detriments.

I am not judging non-dairy ‘cheese’ for taste or cooking performance. Nor am I considering religious and ethical matters such as environmental impact or animal welfare because these are beyond the scope of this article.

 

words describing animal-free 'cheese'

How does non-dairy cheddar-style block ‘cheese’ compare with traditional block cheese?

  • Traditional cheese contains a lot more protein, 25 times more protein. The main ingredients in non-dairy block ‘cheese’ are water, oil and refined processed starch. Oil and water do not contain protein. Processed starches contain very little protein.
  • Non-dairy ‘cheese’ contains significant amount of carbohydrate (mostly from refined starches); at least 20 g carbohydrate per 100 g. If you have diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance, you may need to account for the extra carbohydrate. Traditional cheese contains less than one gram carbohydrate per 100 g of cheese.
  • The majority of fat in cheddar-style non-dairy ‘cheese’ comes from coconut oil. Coconut oil is not healthier than milk fat, which is the natural fat present in traditional cheese. If you have high cholesterol levels, you are wiser to have traditional full cream cheese rather than a product containing coconut oil.
  • If you are lactose intolerant, both cow’s milk block cheese and non-dairy cheddar-style ‘cheese’ are suitable.
  • Traditional block cheese is not suitable for people with milk protein allergy.
  • If you are gluten intolerant, cow’s milk block cheese is a safe automatic choice. You need to be much more careful with non-dairy ‘cheese’ because some brands contain oat, barley or other gluten containing ingredients.
  • If you have other food allergies and sensitivities, even more caution is needed when choosing a non-dairy ‘cheese’. The use of spices and plant concentrates for colour and flavour in non-dairy ‘cheese’ may trigger reactions in food sensitive people.
  • Traditional cheese is an important natural source of calcium, vitamin D and zinc. None of the non-dairy varieties contain vitamin D and none declare their calcium content. The ingredient lists of the non-dairy products reviewed confirmed no fortification with these two important nutrients. The ingredients present are unlikely to contain significant amounts of these key nutrients. If you replace regular block cheese with a non-dairy vegan alternative, your intake of calcium, protein, zinc and vitamin D will drop, which is an unhealthy swap.
  • Non-dairy cheddar-style contains almost double the sodium content of traditional cheese, which is not ideal. A high salt intake is associated with increased risk of stroke. Neither traditional block nor non-dairy ‘cheese’ are suitable for people on a low salt diet (e.g for Meniere’s disease, salt-sensitive high blood pressure, some forms of kidney disease).
  • Non-dairy block ‘cheese’ contains 30% fewer kilojoules (kJs) than traditional block cheese. On the surface, it is easy to assume fewer kJs makes non-dairy block ‘cheese’ a better choice for weight loss and maintenance but it doesn’t. The reason? For the kJs, non-dairy block ‘cheese’ doesn’t boost your nutrition and it doesn’t help preserve muscle mass and bone density. Traditional cheese does. The kJs in non-dairy cheddar-style ‘cheese’ are hollow without any other nutritional value.
  • If you select foods with short uncomplicated ingredient lists, traditional block cheese wins.

Nutrient composition

Traditional block cheese versus non-dairy cheddar-style vegan-friendly block ‘cheese’

The numbers in the tables are averages of values taken from product labels in-store, from manufacturers’ websites and from dietary analysis software in February 2020.

Individual products will vary so be sure to check products on-shelf to finalise your own decision.

Nutrition Information

per 100 g

Cow’s milk block cheese

Non-dairy cheddar-style block ‘cheese’

kJ

1720

1190

Protein g

25.8

0.2

Fat g

34.3

22.2

Saturated fat g

23.2

19.6

Carbohydrate g

0.3

20.9

Sodium g

654

1247

Calcium mg

729

not specified but likely 0 based on ingredients present

Vitamin D micrograms

3.2

not specified but likely 0 based on ingredients present

Zinc mg

3.8

not specified but likely 0 based on ingredients present


So is non-dairy block 'cheese' better for you?

Do not imagine for a minute that non-dairy or vegan-friendly or plant-based block ‘cheese’ is nutritionally good for you. It is not.

Consider non-dairy cheddar-style block ‘cheese’ like ice cream or lollies: a food that you now know doesn’t deliver much nutritional goodness but might be nice to enjoy occasionally.

There are strong nutrition arguments to swap back to traditional block cheese.

If you have swapped to non-dairy block ‘cheese’ for reasons other than health, review the other foods you eat to ensure you make up for lost calcium, protein, zinc and vitamin D. Think of it as a culinary swap that needs a nutritional top-up.

Where do you get calcium from if you don't eat or drink dairy? That's a question for another time.


How does non-dairy cream cheese’ compare with traditional cow’s milk cream cheese?

ply

  • Both traditional and non-dairy ‘cream cheese’ are not very good sources of calcium and protein when compared with traditional block cheese.
  • And although traditional cream cheese is not as good a source of calcium as block cheese, it does contain some calcium but not all non-dairy ‘cream cheeses’ contain calcium. I’d recommend you check the ingredient list of non-dairy brands and choose one that has sesame seeds (tahini) with or without other nuts in the first two or three ingredients. Sesame seeds are a good source of calcium and bring the nutritional profile of the product in line with traditional cream cheese.
  • If you have a nut or seed allergy, be very cautious when selecting a non-dairy ‘cream cheese’ because the allergens present typically include soy, nuts or seeds.
  • If you have a milk protein allergy avoid traditional cream cheese.
  • Non-dairy ‘cream cheese‘ is lactose free, which is an advantage over dairy cream cheese.
  • The energy (kJ) and total fat are slightly lower in non-dairy ‘cream cheese’ but the difference is not remarkable enough to rank non-dairy as superior on these aspects. The use of cocoa butter, coconut cream or coconut oil as the main added fats in non-dairy ‘cream cheese’ makes these products less suitable for people with a history of high cholesterol levels.

Nutrient composition

Traditional cream cheese versus non-dairy ‘cream cheese’

Nutrition Information

per 100 g

Cow’s milk traditional cream cheese

Non-dairy ‘cream cheese’

kJ

1280

1230

Protein g

6.6

7

Fat g

29.3

27.3

Saturated fat g

20.5

11.6

Carbohydrate g

2.6

4.9

Sodium g

374

542

Calcium mg

82

not specified but likely 0 if no sesame seeds present. If sesame seeds present, possibly 80


Conclusion about non-dairy ‘cream cheese’?

If you want to replace traditional cream cheese with a non-dairy variety, choose one with sesame seeds as a key ingredient (unless you are allergic).

If better health is your main priority, far better than any cream cheese are simple spreads such as tahini, nut butters, smashed avocado, and white bean (haricot or cannellini) dip. These are nutritionally superior to both traditional and non-dairy ‘cream cheese’. They don’t taste or perform like traditional cream cheese but neither does non-dairy ‘cream cheese’.


Value?

Non-dairy ‘cheese’ is an expensive category at $30 to $40 per kilogram for non-dairy block ‘cheese’ and upwards from $24 per kilogram for non-dairy ‘cream cheese’. They are not good nutritional value for the $ but perhaps nutrition is not what drives the decision to eat vegan friendly, animal-free, non-dairy 'cheese'.

If you prefer not to have dairy cheese but want to maintain or improve your health, spend your money on more vegetables, seeds, nuts, or if acceptable to your philosophy or needs, eat sardines and canned salmon eaten with soft bones. The more of these you have, the better your calcium and potassium intake will be.

Do you know of a non-dairy ‘cheese’ that defies the norm and is a good source of calcium, protein and vitamin D? Please tell me what you have found. Head over to my FaceBook page and post a comment.

While you are there, tell me your thoughts about non-dairy ‘cheese’? Do you use any? How do they perform in recipes? I’d really like to know how and why you use non-dairy animal-free 'cheese'.

Thank you Trudy! A sign of appreciation

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