In recent years, the food market has seen the entry and exponential growth of new products that have immediately divided public opinion. We are talking about plant-based products, which meet the needs of a population that is increasingly sensitive to issues such as health, the environment and animal welfare.
There are now a variety of these foods: from milk substitutes, which are now widely consumed and socially accepted by more or less everyone, to the more recent and much-discussed cold cuts, burgers, and plant-based cheeses.
But what is vegetable cheese?
We hear more and more about it, some people consume it habitually and some have only heard of it, some are curious to try it and some, skeptical, look at it with distrust.
But what exactly is vegetable cheese?
Vegetable cheese is a product made from vegetable ingredients-sorry to repeat-that was created for the purpose of reproducing the flavor and texture of traditional cheese. Therefore, all raw materials from animals, such as milk and animal rennet, are excluded from the starting ingredients.
Thesupply of plant-based cheeses has expanded tremendously in recent years. Long gone are the days when the only plausible alternative to dairy products was tofu! There are similar offerings of fresh, stringy but also aged cheeses. The starting ingredients and the way they are processed make the difference.
Is it permissible to call them by the term cheese?
By law, these products should not be called that. The law indicates that under the terminology of cheese fall those processes that start from milk of animal origin. It is therefore technically incorrect to identify them by this name, but in this article we will make an exception for convenience and immediacy. However, if you’re wondering, that’s why vegetable products similar to cheese generally carry another name on the label.
Ingredients of vegetable cheeses
What’s inside vegetable cheeses? More than fair question since milk and rennet, what we call cheese a dairy product for, are not present in these foods.
The main ingredients of vegetable cheeses are water, vegetable oils, milk, vegetable yogurt, cornstarch, potato starch, tofu, and bacterial protein. They are not all present in the same cheese, and you will definitely find cheeses with other ingredients that I have not listed, but it was to give you an idea. A mix is usually made with some of the ingredients, which are heated in a saucepan and then set aside.
For “aged” vegetable cheeses, flours or starches are added, making the final product more compact.
Emulsifiers, salt, and flavor enhancers are often added to these first foods. In some cases, nutritional yeast, which you may have already heard of, or lactic acid is also used.
Food ye ast is composed of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the brewer’s yeast, which is grown on a sugar substrate and then inactivated and dried. Therefore, it has no fermenting or leavening power and is used for flavoring.
In addition to these ingredients, some “curdling” agent such as lemon juice or apple cider vinegar is optionally used, which help to coagulate milk and yogurt by achieving interesting textures. Agar agar, a thickener and gelling agent of plant origin, may also appear among the ingredients.
Types of vegetable cheeses
Let us review the main types of plant-based cheeses with related ingredients used to create them.
Vegetable cheeses with cereal-based milk or yogurt
Soy beverages, commonly known as “milk,” are among the most popular ingredients used to create vegetable cheese. Beverages made from oats and other grains can also be used: the properties of each determine different textures, scents and colorations.
Combining soy milk with apple cider vinegar or lemon juice, for example, produces a cheese that is similar in texture and color to cottage cheese and; a firmer cheese with yellow hues is obtained by using oats instead.
Stringy vegetable cheeses
Vegetable cheeses also include mozzarella-like cheeses that are typically created with rice milk and rice flour. Cream and soy yogurt can also be used.
Aged vegetable cheeses
To make aged vegetable cheeses, consistency must be added: chickpea flour or, for those with celiac disease, cornstarch and/or potato starch are added for this purpose. In these preparations, after placing the soft dough in bundles, it is left at room temperature with the appropriate cloth for a couple of days so that it has time to dry. Aging is not needed, there are no fermentation processes taking place, but during this time the wheel reaches a consistency similar to that of aged cheeses.
Vegetable cheese with cashews, peanuts and almonds
A large slice of vegetable cheeses has dried fruit inside. Cashews, peanuts, and almonds are widely used because fermentation can be achieved from their preparations, which imparts flavor and complexity to the final products.
They are usually blended finely and added with water, salt, ferments and other flavorings. Many strands of such products are emerging, because by admitting the use of bacterial fermentation one can indulge. There are those who are already experimenting with the use of Penicillum roquefortii-used to produce Roquefort, Penicillum glaucum-used for Gorgonzola cheese-and Penicillum candidae to make new products.
Is vegetable cheese healthier than animal cheese?
There are some considerations to be made in this regard. Intuitively we would be inclined to think thatvegetable cheese contains less fat and is healthier, but this is not necessarily the case.
Let us start by saying that we need to consider several aspects of these products, first and foremost the ingredients. As we saw earlier, oils or nuts may be present in each of the preparations. These are categories of high-fat foods that must be taken into consideration.
We cannot think of consuming vegan cheese as if it were fresh water in short: we should often consume it as carefully as we do traditional cheeses. It must be said, however, that cholesterol is absent in these foods, and those with a little trouble on this side can breathe a sigh of relief.
In any case, by virtue of the fact that it is not possible to lump such varied products together, one of the things we can do is to read the labels and make a comparison with animal equivalents. Creamy with creamy, hard paste with hard paste for that matter.
Food Fact did this with some of the products on the market, and several interesting considerations emerged. But do it too, take an interest in labels-they are a most interesting world.
Here is what emerged from these comparisons:
- In addition to the fat content, which does not vary significantly from that contained in cheeses of animal origin, an eye should be brought to the salt content. To flavor vegetable preparations, the addition is there and it shows. In some cases it goes even higher than the “original.”
- Another interesting issue that emerged starts from the assumption that cheeses are a source of fat and protein. The question arises: do plant-based cheeses have good protein content? Should we consider them as a source of this category of nutrients? The answer is: it depends, often not.
There are very different products on the market, both in terms of ingredient list and nutritional characteristics. A vegetable cheese made from tofu or chickpea flour can have appreciable protein content. Instead, many other products contain fat and carbohydrates, but protein is almost absent.
I would like to emphasize that these data should not discourage us from consuming vegetable cheeses, but only invite us to take them into consideration and be more aware of what we consume and avoid exaggeration.
How to make vegetable cheese at home?
Are you interested in making vegetable cheese at home? There are many recipes available online!
Some ingredients are not so easy to find, but some sites can bring them directly to your home.
Here are some links and a video of recipes to try at home.
If you do, tell us about it!
The issue of plant-based products substituting for meat and cheese is at the center of great discussion, whether more or less committed. On the one hand, there are those who argue that these products are the ideal solution to reduce the environmental impact of food, promote a healthier lifestyle, and at the same time respect the welfare of animals that are exploited and live in poor conditions. On the other hand, there are those who criticize the use of meat substitutes, arguing that they are unhealthy and just a fad of the moment, but also a threat to the Italian dairy tradition.
But does this division really make sense?
In the first instance, it would be psychologically and socially healthier to consume what we think is best while refraining from judging those whose opinions and sensibilities differ from our own. In a fast-changing world, it is natural to observe how new products are introduced year after year. This happens because of technological advancement and market demands, which in parallel also lead to the modification and improvement of existing products.
Second, it is biased to think that these new foods will somehow threaten our national identity because, in fact, they are not created to replace such excellences as Parmigiano Reggiano, gorgonzola, provolone or mozzarella. These products will remain and be equally consumed. On the other hand, those who do not consume meat and its derivatives will have an alternative. Therefore, it does not take anything away, rather it adds, creating possibilities for all.
What does the market say about vegetable cheeses?
The market featuring plant-based cheeses is expanding rapidly. A study commissioned by the Good Food Institute Europe and conducted by NielsenIQ analyzed the market for plant-based products and its trend over the three-year period 2020 – 2022 in 13 European states. Sales of this type of product has increased tremendously in all categories, with vegetable beverages leading the way and meat substitutes in second place. The market for plant-based cheeses is also expanding widely: there was an increase of 11 percent total in the three years under consideration, with a positive trend that continues to grow. The full report, if you want to read more, can be found here.
In short, the vegetable cheese market is growing and offers attractive alternatives for those who wish to reduce their consumption of animal products. Whether you are curious to try them or a staunch supporter of the omnivorous eating style, exploring and tasting new products with curiosity can only enrich the dining experience. And if you don’t like it, you will still have something interesting to tell 😉