The Evolution of Vegan Cheese

Vegan cheese has come a long way in the last 30+ years. In many supermarkets, there are now sections dedicated to animal-free products with a number of cheese options from shreds to deli-style slices.
vegan cheese on light background

Vegan cheese has come a long way in the last 30+ years. In many supermarkets, there are now sections dedicated to animal-free products with a number of cheese options from shreds to deli-style slices.

Even artisan cheeses are becoming more and more popular, where you can buy or make your own versions of “fancy” types like Brie or Gruyere from nuts, seeds, tofu and more! Cookbooks are dedicated to the subject or including entire chapters to it.

What is Cheese?

From the Latin term, “caseus,” the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has three definitions for the word, “cheese” as follow:

  1. A food consisting of the coagulated, compressed, and usually ripened curd of milk separated from the whey
  2. An often cylindrical cake of this food
  3. Something resembling cheese in shape or consistency
  4. Something cheap or shabby: cheesy material <cinematic cheese>

The first definition points us to dairy. As vegans, we say, “No Whey!” Therefore, the second definition is geared towards us! While the lineage of Mr. Merriam and Mr. Webster probably didn’t have veganism in mind when they added “cheese” to the dictionary, advances in food technology have allowed just about anyone to become a cheesemonger or start a fromagerie.

Now, of course, the third definition all comes down to how the cheese (and other products) are made However, vegan cheese can be just as cheap or expensive as the time, effort and ingredients put into them.The game has indeed changed.

The Beginnings of Vegan Cheese

There isn’t much information on the exact origin of vegan cheese. There have been some daring people to try it from chefs to manufacturers. When non-dairy cheeses began hitting the market in the 1980s, it came with skepticism. The taste of these cheeses did not match the experience of dairy cheeses, being deemed not as good and having taste and texture of wax, chalk, and even plastic.

Another downside of these non-dairy cheeses was the majority containing casein. Casein is a protein in milk that used to aid in coagulation, acting as both a thickening and stretching agent. Casein being animal-derived would not be suitable for vegans.

What were vegans to do?

There was soybean curd, commonly known as tofu. Tofu was, and still is, a pretty versatile food. As cheese, some of the ways it could be used were:

  • Drained and sliced for sandwiches
  • Mashed for soft cheeses like Ricotta
  • Cubed and seasoned for Feta or Mozzarella
  • Silken and blended to be used as a spread, like mayonnaise

Tofu had the texture and variety in firmness to get as close to a consistency of cheese as possible. It would take on the flavor of whatever you seasoned, marinated or cooked with it. However, tofu needed a lot of help to come close to the experienced people desired while eating cheese with their meals. Working with tofu is easy but, when replicating dairy cheese, it is not as smooth as it’s a highly textured product. There was also the issue of people who were sensitive to soy allergies.

It would be nearly 20 years before we would see a considerable shift in vegan cheese production in volume, variety and flavor.

Get Nutty about Cheese

Who would have thought that you could make cheese out of nuts? Well, someone did, and now many are in the know. Nuts, like tofu, are versatile. Whether you soak cashews with Rejuvelac (a fermented grain liquid) to make mozzarella, or you grind walnuts with nutritional yeast to make Parmesan cheese, nuts have shown to bring depth into vegan cheese-making. They also present an opportunity to deepen the alternatives for those with soy allergies.

Nut cheeses can take on the flavors made with them like tofu does. However, nuts have made it possible to create a variety of cheeses, reminiscent of the dairy ones some of us grew up eating. Nut cheeses can be made quickly with simple mixtures or aged for sharpness through fermentation (thanks to ingredients like Rejuvelac).

Nuts have shown to have health benefits, especially for those concerned about their soy intake. Some benefits include:

  • Full of probiotics and natural enzymes to help with digestion
  • Cholesterol-free
  • Excellent source of minerals like magnesium and copper to promote heart and muscle health
  • High in fiber

Fresh N Lean understands and has introduced cashew cheeses to their menu! We are very excited as it is something we know people exploring a plant-based diet will love.

The Vegan Cheese Market Today

As veganism hits the mainstream, more products and cookbooks to promote an animal-free lifestyle have hit the market. This has been true for vegan cheese. Taking a lead from natural and organic food stores, major supermarket chains are now carrying non-dairy cheese alternatives with numerous varieties in base, texture and flavor.

Food advancements have led to commercial and artisanal cheeses being made for home and food service. These cheeses are far surpassed the need to cater to only the lactose intolerant. Cheese has become a food for everyone from gluten-free to nut-free. The demand has shown that people want comfort that fits in with their health or dietary restrictions. The call is now being answered!

In 2014, vegan cheese sales accounted for $30M in the United States. That was a nearly 23% increase from 2013. The number of new brands and varieties is growing at a rapid pace. We see the media pay considerable attention. Technology firms are making substantial investments in food advancements with vegan cheeses, as seen on shows like Shark Tank.

“I’d Go Vegan, But I Can’t Give Up Cheese”

Even five years ago, it was very easy to dismiss a plant-based diet for being “cheese-free.” Scientific studies have shown that dairy cheese contains an addictive quality in the form of casomorphins, derived from casein! It is now understandable why it would be difficult to give up cheese or any dairy product because as Dr. Neal Barnard has described, it is “dairy ‘crack.’”

Vegan cheese is more readily available in stores. From deli slices to artisan rounds, these alternatives are giving consumers choices with creative spins and flavors. You do not need to be daring to give it a try in a grilled cheese sandwich or alfredo sauce.

Now, there are even cookbooks dedicated to vegan cheese-making! They show how to make vegan cheese and why it does not need to be difficult. It can be as simple or complex as you want. What you find in stores, you can make at home.

Some great cookbook titles include:

Today, there’s no excuse not to try “next level” vegan cheese, full of flavor with less of a negative impact on your health…and the world around you.That is something that Fresh N Lean supports, as we deliver our cashew cheese to you.

What’s Next for Plant-Based Cheese?

Over 25 years ago, the choices were slim and not very good. Now, cheeses can be made from soy/tofu, rice, nuts, coconuts, tapioca, and even potatoes. Cheeses can be raw or processed. Cheeses can be bought in a store or made at home from simple ingredients.

The game has changed, friends! The standards and expectations are now high, as the quality of vegan cheese has improved over the years. Companies are now partnering with vegan food producers to serve products like pizza, cream cheese, and even cheesecake!

The demand is shifting where vegan cheese is not just for vegans. Vegan cheese is for everyone. Non-vegans are expanding that market, as they learn about their health, the benefits of plant-based eating or just want to experiment with new foods.

So, what’s next for plant-based cheese? Only time will tell. What we do know is:

  • Demand for animal products is decreasing
  • Access to dairy-free cheese is growing
  • Future cheeses will need to exceed the taste and texture
  • The bar has been raised

Vegan Cheese at Fresh N Lean

Non-dairy cheese is booming! We get this and are working to make our cashew-based cheese the best vegan cheese it can be for our vegan meal service. We hope you’re excited just as we are!

We have already started adding this amazing and revolutionary product into our dishes. Our cheese is so delicious you can’t even tell it’s imitation! With flavors such as American and Cheddar you are able to enjoy a snack without the guilt. Looking to try some slices? Snack packs are available on our Á La Carte menu.


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