The Vegan Cheese ‘Health Warning’ – Is There Really Cause For Concern?

Vegan cheese isn't typically made to be a health food, but the media has been criticizing its lack of nutrition


7 Minutes Read

Cheese slices Is vegan cheese really unhealthy compared to dairy cheese? - Media Credit: Adobe Stock

The vilification of plant-based alternatives to animal products continues. This week, vegan cheese has come under fire for being too salty.

A new report by health campaign group Action on Salt has found that, on average, plant-based cheese contains more salt than hard-pressed dairy cheeses like cheddar.

Media reports have emphasized the apparent unhealthiness of plant-based cheese. Meanwhile, they have downplayed the unhealthiness of the dairy cheeses analyzed by Action on Salt.

Is there really cause to be worried about your health when eating vegan cheese? Here, we dig into the report’s findings and the reasons that plant-based cheese may be better than dairy cheese.

Salt and fat

According to Action on Salt, per 100g, plant-based cheeses contain 1.91g of salt on average. This ranges from 1.25g at the low end and 2.5g at the high end. The saltiest dairy cheese is string cheese with 1.8g of salt. Cheddar, which accounts for more than half the cheese consumed in the UK, has an average of 1.77g of salt per 100g. 

Plant-based cheese was also found to be very slightly higher in saturated fat on average than dairy cheeses, at 21.4g per 100g. Lancashire cheese had the same saturated fat content, while Red Leicester and Double Gloucester had 21.2g and 21.3g respectively. Cheshire, Cheddar, and Caerphilly all had more than 20g of saturated fat.

Adults shouldn’t consume more than about 6g a day. Having a diet high in salt is bad for your health, as it can cause high blood pressure, raising the risk of heart disease and stroke. Eating a diet high in saturated fat is linked to higher levels of “bad” cholesterol, which also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.

One serving – about 30g – of a salty vegan cheese, like Tesco’s Plant Chef Alternative to Mature Cheddar, contains 0.75g of salt. That’s 13 percent of an adult’s reference intake (RI). The Plant Chef cheese is also on the high end for saturated fat content, providing 35 percent of the RI. Some dairy cheeses provide similar levels of salt and saturated fat in one serving.

Does that mean plant-based cheese is unhealthy?

Cashew nut Camembert cheese
Adobe stock Cashew-based cheese is a healthier choice of vegan cheese

Plant-based cheeses can be made out of a lot of different ingredients. This means that their nutritional profiles can vary hugely.

Many vegan cheeses currently on the market are clearly not particularly healthy. Unlike plant-based milks, very few are fortified with nutrients such as calcium and vitamins. 

Coconut oil is currently the most common ingredient used to make plant-based cheeses sold in supermarkets. This explains the high saturated fat content found in many of those analyzed by Action on Salt. 

Vegan cheeses made from other ingredients are much lower in saturated fat. These include ones made from cashews and almonds, which contain 0 to 1g per serving. Cashew-based cheeses are also more likely to be low in salt and higher in protein, with about 3g of protein per 30g serving.

Compared to dairy-based cheddar, cashew-based cheese has about half the protein, but far less saturated fat and less salt.

Plant-based cheese can be made healthier

Though few vegan cheeses are currently fortified, they can in theory be made into a source of calcium and vitamin B12 through fortification. The range of salt levels found in plant-based cheese also indicate that they could be made less salty by manufacturers, or low-salt ranges could be produced.

Research is being done into making vegan cheeses healthier using legumes as a base ingredient. One company is developing cheese made from yellow split peas and using a method that involves minimal processing to maintain nutritional quality. 

It’s also possible to make vegan cheese at home that can be healthier as you can control what ingredients it includes. For example, homemade vegan cheese can be made using sunflower seeds, which are rich in vitamins, minerals, and heart-healthy fatty acids. 

Dairy cheese is not that healthy either

Dairy cheese is a source of protein and calcium, which is why it is sometimes described as healthy. But due to its high salt and saturated fat content, nutritionists typically recommend limiting how much you consume. 

Action on Salt’s report shows that many dairy cheeses – particularly highly popular cheddar – are too high in salt. As with plant-based cheeses, manufacturers of dairy cheese can lower the salt content, which Action on Salt is urging them to do. But in the meantime cheese remains a source of significant salt intake in many people’s diets.

The saturated fat content of many dairy cheeses is also problematic. Nutritionists often recommend limiting consumption of cheese or eating low-fat alternatives. 

Vasanti Malik, nutrition research scientist with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has previously said that people should “keep in mind that eating a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of green leafy vegetables and nuts can better help you get the calcium and protein you need rather than relying too much on dairy.”

Why eat plant-based cheese? 

Vegan cheese made from sunflower seeds
The Garden Party Vegan cheese made from sunflower seeds

Plant-based cheese is not necessarily a health food, but it is not inherently unhealthy either. Action on Salt and media reports point out that many vegan cheeses on the market are not particularly healthy despite their “health halo.” This health halo refers to consumer perceptions that plant-based alternatives are automatically healthier. This is why there is backlash against plant-based products when their nutritional qualities fall short of people’s expectations.

But plant-based alternatives to animal products are not typically made to be health foods. They are intended to fill the role of many already unhealthy animal products such as burgers, sausages, cheese, and ice-cream without harming animals and with far less impact on the environment. For people who are concerned with eating healthily, a wholefoods plant-based diet has been shown time and again to have the greatest health benefits.

So, what are the reasons beyond health to choose plant-based alternatives over dairy cheese?

Environmental benefits

Dairy has a significant environmental footprint. Cheese emits 23.88kg of greenhouse gases per kilo. A report by the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (IATP) found that the world’s 13 biggest dairy companies combined emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the whole of the UK.

Dairy is also highly polluting, causing nutrient runoff from animal manure into waterways. The UK’s dairy cows produce around 50 billion liters of manure a year, much of which gets spreads onto fields as fertilizer. In 2021, the dairy industry was linked to at least 150 river pollution incidents from manure.

Plant-based cheeses, by comparison, can have much lower emissions and cause far less pollution. The main ingredient to watch out for from an environmental perspective is palm oil, which is used in some but not all plant-based cheeses. 

Coconut oil is not associated with large-scale deforestation like the palm oil industry is. But consumers who are worried about eating coconut products can opt for cheeses made of nuts or legumes instead.

Animal cruelty

Cheese production relies on a cycle of forcibly impregnating cows and taking their calves from them shortly after birth. This is known to cause distress to both mothers and calves.

As male calves are not useful to the dairy industry, they are often shot in the head at just a day old. Some farms in the UK have now have moved away from this practice due to stricter rules imposed by retailers and farm certification scheme Red Tractor. Instead, calves are often sent to calf dealers who send them on to slaughter or to be raised for beef. 

Some calves born in other countries end up being exported and slaughtered abroad. Ireland exports hundreds of thousands of calves across Europe each year to be reared for veal on journeys lasting as long as 61 hours.

As for plant-based cheeses, there may be reason to worry about coconut oil-based ones. If the coconuts were harvested in Thailand, it’s possible they were picked by captive monkeys forced into labor. If it’s not possible to find out where the coconuts came from, you can opt for cheeses made from other ingredients.

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