How to choose the best plant-based cheese

The market for plant-based foods has exploded and the trend shows no sign of slowing down. And it’s not just vegans who are seeking out plant-based products. Many who regularly consume various animal foods are behind the growing popularity of the various plant-based offerings as they aspire to make healthier choices, either for their health or for the planet.

But there is a whole lot of confusion out there.

Firstly don’t fall for the health halo that has been bestowed on the term plant-based. Potato chips, candy and many commercial cookies are plant-based but they’re not what the nutrition recommendations to eat more plant-based foods are all about. While it may seem obvious that it’s the case, it all depends on what particular plant-based options you’re choosing.

The concept of plant-based eating is supposed to be about consuming more whole foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes or pulses and nuts and seeds.

But food manufacturers are using the term plant-based to hype their products, many of which have nothing to do with whole foods. Just check out these photos.

Most brands of potato chips are indeed plant-based but you’re not seeing this on most labels – yet.

These cookies also trumpet that they are plant-based but just check out their ingredient list.

Ingredients: Unbleached Wheat Flour, Cane Sugar, Palm Oil, Safflower Oil, Cocoa Powder (Processed With Alkali), Brown Rice Syrup, Leavening (Baking Soda, Ammonium Bicarbonate) Sea Salt, Soy Lecithin, Natural Flavor.

Refined flour, sugar and palm oil don’t make for a healthier sandwich cookie. The ingredient list doesn’t look all that different from those other popular sandwich cookies. And if you want to eat them, go for it. Just don’t think you’re making a healthier choice because they’re touting that they’re plant-based.

Plant-based cheese – another fast growing food category

Plant-based cheese offerings have gone mainstream but before you make your purchase, here are a few issues to consider.

The first is why do you include cheese on your menu?

Are you a cheese lover or are you trying to increase your intake of certain nutrients? Or might you be eating cheese for both reasons?

Do you try to eat lower fat cheeses due to health or weight concerns?

Or do you avoid eating animal products or are you trying to decrease your intake of these foods?

Maybe you’re simply trying to increase your intake of plant-based foods. Or perhaps you might be trying to avoid dairy products at certain meals due to dietary laws such as keeping kosher as Jewish dietary laws do not permit consuming dairy products together with meat at the same meal?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you might be seeking out products such as plant-based cheeses.

Why plant-based cheeses?

Your reasons are key in your decision-making as to which product to select.

Many people eat cheese for its nutritional value – most are a super source of calcium, protein, B vitamins and minerals, such as zinc, and magnesium.

Others, though, are trying to eat less or avoid cheese due to the saturated fat content or  because they’re vegan.

While choosing a plant-based cheese may seem like a smart alternative health wise, it might not be the case. Many non-dairy beverages are fortified with assorted nutrients, such as calcium, vitamins D and B12, which almost mirror those found in cow’s milk, though, in many the protein content tends to be much lower.

Plant-based cheeses are another story.

Some include nuts, such as cashews, as a foundation while others seem to be a mix of modified starches and coconut oil. While none (in Canada), unlike dairy cheese, can be counted on as a source of calcium or offer significant amounts of protein, the nut-containing offerings and the coconut oil-based ones yield very different profiles in terms of other nutrients.

Most of the nut ones – but not all – provide healthy fats. That’s definitely a plus. But there are some nut-based ones which do contain mainly saturated fat in the form of coconut oil. Check out the nutrition facts and ingredient lists to be sure if the product is nut-based or simply coconut oil and modified starch.

For example, take Babybel® Plant-based. Or maybe don’t, if you live in Canada. The US version is very different as it has significantly more added calcium and even contains vitamin B12.

I just don’t get the reason for this cheese even being produced. I can understand someone wanting to choose a cheese, such as a plant-based shredded mozzarella or cheddar, to use in a recipe which calls for a melted cheese. In cases like that, it wouldn’t be for the nutritional profile of the cheese. But eating this product would seem to simply be about the cheese itself as Babybels tend to be eaten on their own.

Take a look at the nutrition information and the ingredients. Note the main ingredients, besides the water: potato modified starch and coconut oil with a little and I do mean a little calcium thrown in. The regular Babybel has 5 grams of protein and 12% of your daily calcium needs.

If you eat it at a meal, then don’t count on it as a source of protein and if it’s a snack, let’s say with an apple, then instead, I would suggest including nutrition-packed nuts or seeds if you’re looking for plant-based. If not, go for dairy cheese and if you’re concerned about the fat, go for a reduced-fat option.

Some of these cheeses would fit into the ultra-processed food category so you might not want to make them a staple on your menu. Keep in mind that they’re also pricier than their dairy counterparts.

Keep in mind that most of the top nutrition-packed plant-based options won’t tout that they’re plant-based on the label. Many may have no real food label at all or if they do, there are a minimal number of ingredients and those that supply some nutrition other than saturated fat and calories.

If you’re choosing some of these offerings with the plant-based labels just because you like them, enjoy them but don’t do it for the health of it.

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Categories: Nutrition News, Rosie's Rants

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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2 Comments on “How to choose the best plant-based cheese”

  1. Amie Ritchie
    March 22, 2023 at 4:32 pm #

    I have a like for most of this article, but a real dislike for part of it. As a dietitian and a woman with a dairy allergy I have been part of a large dairy free group for years. Dairy free cheese is a wonderful thing now (it used to be gross). Kids with dairy allergies can now have cheese on their pizza when they eat with friends/family, and the babybel melts beautifully for that purpose.. I know of NO ONE who considers DF cheese a replacement nutritionally for real cheese, but it CAN and often does serve as a treat food that makes people feel more normal in a super dairy based society that we live in. I can tell you after years of cheeseless pizza, it’s nice that things don’t fall off when I pick it up now.. I always include chicken or nutritional yeast for protein, so the cheese is just a fat with a job. sometimes we just want to feel like everyone else. And honestly there are a lot less healthy junk food options out there in some cases. Especially since most people I know use vegan cheese in small amounts because the taste isn’t great when done in larger quantities And Back to the babybel- it melts well so it makes a nice sauce or grilled cheese or pizza.. actually better than most of the vegan mozzarella out there.. so unless I can get my hands on Miyoko’s liquid mozzarella (which is a bit too salty so again super moderaton) I will go for the babybel if I can find it to make something melty.. mostly pizza.. though I have been known to make the occasional grilled cheese just because.. oh I don’t know- 30 years without one it’s kinda nice to be able to have it occasionally as a junk food treat- typically with a bunch of veg on it or served with a salad… and then I’ve satisfied that urge for another 6 months…

    • March 27, 2023 at 6:44 pm #

      Thanks so much for your feedback, Amie! But I am sorry to hear of your dislike for part of the article. Yes, I do agree that dairy free cheese has come a long way. But I do disagree with you in terms of how some people are perceiving these cheeses. Besides my writing, I also do nutritional counselling and this is how I first came across the Plant-based Babybels. As I stated in the article, some people are mistaking plant-based products as offering more health benefits than their animal-based counterparts. In fact, the fat-reduced Babybels would be a heart healthier choice than the plant-based version. Your using it as a treat food is in keeping with what I have suggested. It’s the label of being plant-based which I am seeing which may promote more regular consumption that I am concerned about. Yes, label reading is key but there does seem to be a health halo associated with these products. It’s also great that it melts so well and allows for a tasty pizza. But I also do wish that, for purposes such as this, that there was less packaging. The wax coating (a combination of paraffin and microcrystalline wax) is not compostable so if Plant-based Babybel fans are using a number of them for cooking, it’s not environmentally friendly. Maybe the company should come out with larger sized versions for cooking.

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