Becoming vegan means, in particular, eliminating all animal products from your diet. But for many people who choose this lifestyle, cheese is one of the hardest foods to give up.
Fortunately for them, the growing popularity of veganism has led producers to increase the variety of vegan cheeses marketed. They even managed, to some extent, to replicate 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.
What are vegan cheeses made of?
People who buy vegan cheese expect it to be just as nutritious as cheese made from milk. But this is rarely the case. In fact, many manufacturers focus on ensuring that vegan cheese tastes, looks and even feels the same as traditional cheese.
For this reason, many vegan cheeses are made with starch and vegetable oils, usually coconut oil or sometimes palm oil. In fact, these ingredients give vegan cheeses a decent texture. But the problem is that its nutritional value is low.
Ingested starch, for example, is broken down into sugar in the intestine. However, over time, excess starch can lead to weight gain and even diseases such as type 2 diabetes or heart disease.
Amount of saturated fatty acids
Vegetable oils are even more problematic. Coconut oil, for example, is composed almost entirely 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. Due to the high levels of coconut oil in some vegan cheeses, even a modest serving (30g) is about a third of the daily recommended amount of saturated fat.
Some vegan cheeses contain palm oil, which is not much better. In fact, approximately half of the fatty acids contained in palm 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 associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Why ? The explanation is not known with certainty, but one hypothesis is that our body assimilates less of the saturated fatty acids in classic cheese than those contained in other foods, such as meat or coconut oil.
Lower nutritional value than conventional cheeses
Since vegan cheeses are made from vegetable oils and contain no starch, they contain little to 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 they must be added by the manufacturer during production. So unlike classic cheeses, most vegan cheeses contain little to no calcium. They are also often devoid of other important micronutrients such as iodine, vitamin B12 or vitamin D, which, on the other hand, are found in cheeses made from milk.
Vegan cheese cannot replace dairy products
Eating an occasional slice of vegan cheese is unlikely to harm your health. On the other hand, substituting dairy for this type of food can have deleterious consequences.
Participants in a clinical study replaced dairy products and eggs with vegan alternatives in their diet for twelve weeks. At the end of the experiment, their bone health was worse than that of 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 such studies are needed to better establish the long-term health consequences of dairy-free vegans.
Choose the right vegan cheese
The reasons for deciding to adopt a vegan diet can be varied, from environmental concerns to the desire to improve health. Keep in mind, 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 like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes.
Above all, it is important to choose the right vegan cheese. In fact, some may be healthier than others, depending on the ingredients they contain. For example, vegan cashew-based 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…
One point to note is that it is important to watch the amount of ultra-processed foods that enter our diet, even if it is vegan. In fact, ultra-processed vegan foods (including vegan cheeses) can have the same negative health effects as other ultra-processed foods, including increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
For vegans, this means carefully checking the composition of cheese substitutes (and other substitutes in general), to minimize the amount of harmful ingredients that are regularly consumed (such as saturated fatty acids). They should also make sure they get all the essential micronutrients for good health, such as vitamin B12, calcium, and vitamin D, either through the food they eat or dietary supplements.
This review was written by Richard Hoffman, Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry at the University of Hertfordshire, England.
The original article was translated (from English) and published on the site of The conversation.
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