Many vegan cheeses have “little nutritional value” by containing significantly more saturated fat while missing the health benefits of the real thing, an expert has warned.
Giving up dairy is often cited as one of the hardest parts of following a plant-based diet – with vegans having to source cheese, chocolate and milk alternatives.
But while those who are meatless can cite the health benefits of their diet, one nutritionist has warned that opting for vegan cheese could increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and poor bone health.
The products, which are available in supermarkets and can cost more than twice as much as traditional versions, are often loaded with “bad cholesterol” while containing “little or no protein” and vitamins.
Richard Hoffman, associate lecturer in nutritional biochemistry at the University of Hertfordshire, said people can expect the vegan substitute to be “as nutritious as dairy cheese”.
“But since many manufacturers are focused on making cheese taste, look and even melt like dairy cheese, this is rarely the case,” he cautioned.
Giving up dairy is often cited as one of the hardest parts of following a plant-based diet – with vegans having to source cheese, chocolate and milk alternatives. But while those who are meatless can cite the health benefits of their diet, one nutritionist has warned that opting for vegan cheese could increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and poor bone health.
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET RESULT IN?
Meals should be potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains, according to the NHS
• Eat at least 5 servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables count
• Meals based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starches, ideally whole grains
• 30 grams of fiber per day: This is equivalent to eating all of the following foods: 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, 2 whole-grain crackers, 2 thick slices of whole-grain bread, and a large baked potato with the skin on.
• Have dairy products or dairy alternatives (like soy beverages) choosing low fat and low sugar options
• Eat beans, legumes, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 servings of fish per week, one of which should be fatty)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consume them in small amounts
• Drink 6 to 8 cups/glasses of water per day
• Adults should consume less than 6 g of salt and 20 g of saturated fat for women or 30 g for men per day
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide
The number of vegans in the UK quadrupled to 600,000 between 2014 and 2019, according to the Vegan Society.
Dozens of alternative cheeses are now available in supermarkets, including those made by Applewood, Sheese, Vitalite, Violife and Ilchester Vegan.
Writing on the news site The conversationMr Hoffman said food makers prioritizing the taste and texture of vegan cheese means the ingredients used can harm health.
Starch and vegetable oils – such as coconut oil and palm oil – are the main ingredients in vegan cheese and make them look like the real thing.
But these have “little nutritional value,” Hoffman said.
The gut breaks down starch into sugar, too much of which leads to weight gain, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
And vegetable oils are “even worse” because despite claims that coconut oil is healthy, it’s “almost entirely” saturated fat, he said.
Lauric acid, the main type of saturated fat in coconut oil, increases levels of “bad cholesterol” known as low-density lipoprotein (LDL). This can increase the risk of heart disease.
Just one small 30g serving of vegan coconut oil cheese contains a third of a person’s daily saturated fat intake.
However, vegans may fare slightly better consuming plant-based cheddar that uses palm oil.
About half of the fat in palm oil is saturated, compared to 90% in coconut oil. But palmitic acid, the main saturated fat in palm oil, also increases the risk of heart disease.
Although the real thing is also high in saturated fat – with a 30g serving containing a third of the maximum recommended daily intake – it’s not linked to an elevated risk of heart disease.
Scientists believe this may be because the saturated fats naturally found in cheese are not absorbed by the body as much as those found in oils and meats.
Those who eat vegan cheese may also miss the nutritional benefits of dairy cheese, which naturally contains protein, calcium, iodine, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
Manufacturers need to add these nutrients to their vegan cheese for consumers to get the same benefits — but not all do, Hoffman said.
“While the occasional slice of vegan cheese is unlikely to do any harm, relying on it as a dairy replacement could come at a cost to your health,” he said.
A 12-week study by researchers at the University of Helsinki saw 136 volunteers follow one of three diets containing different amounts of plant protein. Those who replaced dairy products with vegan alternatives saw their bone health deteriorate.
Hoffman said this was likely due to low vitamin D and calcium intake, but more research is needed to uncover the long-term health consequences of not eating dairy.
While some may be vegan for health benefits, these come from diets high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes.
So it’s “important for vegans to monitor the number of ultra-processed food alternatives they consume,” Hoffman said.
However, he noted that some vegan cheeses may be healthier than others if they use cashews.
These versions tend to be higher in protein and lower in salt and saturated fat, Hoffmann said. Although they are more expensive – costing around £8 for 200g, compared to £1.25 for a usual block of cheddar.