Are plant-based cheeses healthier than regular cheeses?

Becoming vegan means, among other things, banishing all animal products from your diet. But for many people who choose this lifestyle, cheese is one of the hardest foods to give up.

Luckily for them, the growing popularity of veganism has prompted producers to increase the variety of vegan cheeses marketed. They even succeeded, to some extent, in replicating what people like about this food, including its texture and taste. However, not all vegan cheeses are created equal – and many have low nutritional value.

People who buy vegan cheese expect it to be as nutritious as cheese made from milk. But this is rarely the case. Indeed, many manufacturers focus on ensuring that vegan cheese tastes, looks and feels the same as traditional cheese.

It is for this reason that many vegan cheeses are made from starch and vegetable oils – usually coconut oil or, sometimes, palm oil. Indeed, these ingredients give vegan cheeses a suitable texture. But there is a problem: their nutritional value is low.

Ingested starch is, for example, broken down into sugar in the intestine. However, over time, excess starch can lead to weight gain and even health problems such as type 2 diabetes or heart disease.

Amount of saturated fatty acids

Vegetable oils are even more problematic. Coconut oil, for example, is almost entirely made up of saturated fatty acids. However, some of these saturated fatty acids are linked to an increase in the level of “bad” cholesterol (LDL, low density cholesterol), which can increase the risk of heart disease.

This is the case of lauric acid, the main saturated fatty acid present in coconut oil. Although some websites claim that coconut is good for your health, lauric acid significantly increases LDL cholesterol levels. It also increases the risk of coronary heart disease. However, due to the high levels of coconut oil in some vegan cheeses, even a modest serving size (30 grams) is about a third of the recommended daily allowance of saturated fat.

Some vegan cheeses contain palm oil, which isn’t much better. Indeed, about half of the fatty acids contained in this oil are saturated fatty acids, mainly palmitic acid. Like lauric acid, it increases the risk of coronary heart disease. And although some manufacturers claim to use “sustainable” palm oil, it is not certain that it really is.

Although dairy cheeses are also high in saturated fatty acids, there is evidence that their consumption is not linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Why? The explanation is not known with certainty, but one hypothesis is that our body assimilates the saturated fatty acids of classic cheese less well than those contained in other foods, such as meat or coconut oil.

Replacing dairy products with this type of food can have deleterious consequences.

Since vegan cheeses are made from vegetable oils and starches, they contain little or no protein, making them a poorer source of protein than milk-based cheeses.

The amounts and types of vitamins and minerals they contain also vary widely, as it is the manufacturer who must add them during production. Thus, unlike classic cheeses, most vegan cheeses contain little or no calcium. They are also often devoid of other important micronutrients such as iodine, vitamin B12 or vitamin D, which are found in cheeses made from milk.

The occasional consumption of a slice of vegan cheese is unlikely to harm your health. On the other hand, replacing dairy products with this type of food can have deleterious consequences.

Participants in a clinical study substituted dairy products and eggs in their diet with vegan substitutes for twelve weeks. At the end of the experiment, their bone health was worse than that of the participants who had continued to eat eggs and dairy products.

This result is probably explained by a lower intake of vitamin D and calcium. However, more similar studies are needed to better establish the long-term health consequences of dairy-free vegans.

Choosing the right vegan cheese

The reasons for adopting a vegan diet can be varied, from environmental concerns to the desire to improve one’s health. Be aware, however, that while numerous studies have shown that vegan diets can be healthy, this is generally only true for people whose diets are rich in natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.

Above all, it is therefore important to choose your vegan cheese carefully: some may be healthier than others, depending on the ingredients they contain. For example, cashew-based vegan cheeses are generally higher in protein and lower in sodium and saturated fat than other types of vegan cheese. However, they can also be more expensive…

Note that it is important to monitor the number of ultra-processed foods that enter our diet, including whether it is vegan. Indeed, ultra-processed vegan foods (including vegan cheeses) can have the same negative health effects as other ultra-processed foods, including increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

This means that vegans need to carefully check the composition of cheese substitutes (and other substitutes in general), in order to minimize the number of harmful ingredients regularly consumed (such as saturated fatty acids). They also need to make sure they get all the micronutrients essential for good health, such as vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin D, either through the foods they eat or through dietary supplements.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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