Un-brie-lievable! Vegan cheese has ‘little nutritional value’, says expert

Many vegan cheeses have “little nutritional value” because they contain a lot more saturated fat while missing out on the health benefits in the real thing, an expert warned.

Ditching dairy has been cited as one of the hardest parts of sticking to a plant-based diet, requiring vegans to buy alternative cheeses, milk, and even chocolate.

But while those who are meat-free can cite the health benefits of their diet, a nutritionist has warned that choosing vegan cheese could increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and poor bone health.

The products, which are available in the supermarket and can be more than twice as expensive as traditional versions, are often packed with “bad cholesterol” while containing “little to no protein” and vitamins.

Richard Hoffman, an associate professor of nutritional biochemistry at the University of Hertfordshire, said people should expect the vegan alternative to be “as nutritious as milk cheese.”

“But because many manufacturers aim to make the cheese taste, look and even melt like milk cheese, this is rarely the case,” he warned.

Ditching dairy is often cited as one of the hardest parts of following a plant-based diet — requiring vegans to buy alternative cheeses, chocolates, and milks. But while those who don’t eat meat can cite the health benefits of their diet, a nutritionist has warned that choosing vegan cheese could increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and poor bone health.

WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains, according to the NHS

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains, according to the NHS

• Eat at least 5 servings of different fruits and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables count

• Basic meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, preferably whole wheat

• 30 grams of fiber per day: This is equivalent to eating all of the following: 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, 2 whole-grain cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of whole-wheat bread, and large baked potato with skin

• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soy drinks) and opt for low-fat and low-sugar options

• Eat some beans, legumes, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 servings of fish per week, one of which is fatty)

• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consume in small amounts

• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day

• Adults should have 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

According to the Vegan Society, the number of vegans in the UK quadrupled to 600,000 between 2014 and 2019.

As a result, there are now dozens of alternative cheeses available in supermarkets, including those from Applewood, Sheese, Vitalite, Violife and Ilchester Vegan.

In The Conversation, Mr Hoffman said food makers who prioritize vegan cheese taste and texture 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, making them look like the real thing.

But those have “little nutritional value,” Hoffman says.

The gut breaks down starch into sugar, with too much leading 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 completely” saturated fat, he said.

Lauric acid, the main type of saturated fat in coconut oil, raises levels of “bad cholesterol,” known as low-density lipoprotein (LDL). This can increase the risk of heart disease.

Just a small 30g serving of coconut oil-based vegan cheese contains one-third of a person’s daily amount of saturated fat.

However, vegans can do a little better by consuming plant-based cheddar that uses palm oil.

About half of the fat in palm oil is saturated, compared to 90 percent in coconut oil. But palmitic acid, the main saturated fat in palm oil, also increases the risk of heart disease.

While the real thing is also high in saturated fat — with a 30g serving providing one-third of the daily recommended maximum intake — it’s not linked to a high risk of heart disease.

Scientists believe this is because the saturated fat naturally found in cheese is not absorbed by the body as much as in oils and meat.

Those who eat vegan cheese may also be missing out on 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 so that consumers get the same benefits — but not all of them, Mr Hoffman said.

“While it’s unlikely that the occasional slice of vegan cheese will do any harm, relying on it as a substitute for dairy products can be detrimental 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 varying amounts of plant protein. Those who replaced dairy with vegan alternatives saw their bone health deteriorate.

Mr Hoffman said this was likely due to low vitamin D and calcium intake, but more research is needed to discover the long-term health effects of not eating dairy.

While some are vegan for health benefits, these come from following diets rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes.

So it’s “important for vegans to look at how many ultra-processed food alternatives they eat,” Mr Hoffman said.

However, he noted that some vegan cheeses may be healthier than others if they use cashews.

These versions usually contain more protein and less salt and saturated fat, Mr. Hoffmann said. Although they are more expensive – they cost around £8 per 200g compared to £1.25 for a regular block of cheddar.

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