Opinion Piece

But cheese though – how to put down the unputdownable

By 24 September 2020No Comments

Every vegan has heard it before – you’re having a conversation with a sympathetic non-vegan, you start encouraging them to give a plant-based diet a try, and then:

“Oh, I’d love to go vegan, but I just can’t quit cheese!”

The sheer number of variations of vegan mac and cheese recipes available online (and at every plant-based eatery) go to show just how desperate we are to prove to fence-sitters that a life without cheese is not something we’re asking anyone to consider. Certainly as a vegetarian I remember thinking this would be the stumbling block I could never overcome on my path to veganism – what would pasta be without some mozzarella on top, or the festive season without cheeseboards to share?

Image- Dilectio

As a group, those of us interested in encouraging others to take the plant-based plunge seem most focused on offering alternatives to omnivores to make them feel as if they’re not “missing out” or losing anything. But trying to convince people that cashews are there to replace dairy is never going to work. Instead, I think we should acknowledge that giving up dairy really is giving something up – but once you’ve done it, you’ll never want to go back.

Don’t believe me? Here’s the reasons why.

  • It’s probably better for your health

Nobody is trying to suggest that Sheese is a cornerstone of a balanced diet. However, when I still ate dairy, I saw shredded cheese especially as an accessible comfort food – affordable enough to buy every week, but also totally nutritionally unnecessary so as to be a fun treat to top most of my meals with. I really burned through it, encouraged by my assumption that cheese is good for you, necessary even – we need calcium for our bones, right?

While no food is inherently “good” or “bad”, dairy has often been given a far better rap than it should for its purported health benefits thanks to the hard marketing efforts of the dairy industry. In reality, most firm cheeses consumed on the regular by your average omnivore are very high in fat (particularly saturated fat) and salt, as well as being relatively low in protein compared to the more nutritionally valuable/less fun cheeses such as cottage cheese. I’m going to go out on a limb and say nobody is thinking about cottage cheese in particular when they panic over the potential dairy-shaped hole in their new vegan lives.

The perceived necessity of dairy to maintain your calcium intake is also overblown. Firmer, saltier, fattier cheeses tend to have the most calcium – such as Parmesan, which contains 33% of your calcium RDI in a 30g serve. By contrast, the same serve of cottage cheese only gives you 3% of your daily calcium needs. A wide variety of plant-based foods also contain significant levels of calcium: for example, a cup of cooked collard greens will give you 25% of the RDI, a cup of cooked winged beans 24%, cooked white beans 13%, and a serve of almonds 8%, as well as providing you with a powerhouse of healthy fats, protein, magnesium, manganese and Vitamin E. Many vegan foods are also calcium fortified, such as cereals and plant milks. Soy beans are already high in calcium, but most tofu is also prepared with calcium making it an extremely good source of the mineral – just half a cup gives you 86% of the RDI. Long story short, cheese isn’t necessary for your health, so cutting it out could save you some money given that…

  • Vegan cheese is expensive, but so is the cow stuff

One of the biggest lies I told myself while I was resisting following my conscience to a plant-based diet was that I couldn’t afford it. While the accessibility of veganism is a whole other article’s worth of discussion (although, spoiler alert: you don’t need to eat Beyond burgers every day to have a nutritionally complete vegan diet, and most plant-based proteins are cheaper than meat!), eyeing that $8 bag of Sheese at Woolies might turn you off veganism until you realise that you’d already be spending $4.20 for the same volume of Tasty shredded cheese. That might seem like half the price, but when you see an unnecessary topping as a staple in your diet, you’re going to be consuming way more of it – potentially burning through that bag at twice the pace, costing you about the same and adding lots of excess saturated fat to your meals.

As an addition, when I used to eat dairy, my dairy budget was never just confined to a bag of tasty cheese here and there. I wanted parmesan too – the fancy shaved stuff – an occasional wheel of Brie, feta and bocconcini for salads, sliced cheese for sandwiches, ricotta for spreading on crackers, haloumi for weekend brunch… removing dairy made me realise how unnecessary it was for me to be purchasing many of these foods (or alternatives to them) and made me appreciate every food I chose to keep in my life more. Which brings me to my next point…

  • You’re using dairy as a flavour crutch

Last week I made my partner the delicious eggplant rollatini from Veganomicon. The recipe contains both tofu ricotta and a delicious almond-based Parmesan alternative creatively named “Almesan”, which really shines thanks to the addition of lemon zest. It was a seriously impressive meal just bursting with so many delicious flavours – and as soon as I plated it up, he sprinkled a big ol’ handful of dairy cheese on top.

In the moment the jealously started to kick in – as a former cheese lover who did the same with every remotely Italian-inspired or tomatoey dish, I started to wonder if I was truly missing out, but I’d run out of vegan cheese, so I had to go without. However, as soon as I tucked in I realised with relief that being forced to “go without” actually made the dish better. Every flavour was so subtle yet complementary, and I knew all of that would have been drowned out if I still felt I had cheese at my disposal.

A lot of people who swear they couldn’t quit dairy also complain that cheese substitutes taste nothing like real cheese. This is true – but seeing cashew cheese sauce as a direct competitor to well, cheese sauce, blocks you off from appreciating a huge variety of creamy sauces and salty toppings that are delicious in their own right, because you’re constantly comparing them to something they don’t have to be to be good. Plus, none of the cheesy flavours vegans enjoy come with that gross phlegmy taste at the back of your throat dairy often leaves behind.

Try your next pesto pasta without cheese – really try it. Close your eyes and focus on all the flavours. Make a delicious marinara sing with dried herbs rather than gratuitous dairy. There are so many other flavours waiting for you to fall in love with them again.

  • All vegan cheese alternatives are natural for us to digest (unlike lactose)

I am lactose intolerant – for a long time as a cheese-loving vegetarian, that meant no regular milk, yoghurt, or soft cheese such as cream cheese and ricotta. I spent a mint on lactose-free dairy alternatives (which ties back in to point one) and went out of my way to continue consuming dairy by any means possible because soy milk and coconut cream cheese were too “weird” – never really asking myself the question, “Wait, why are so many people lactose intolerant?”

The reason is, of course, that adult mammals of any species, including humans, are not meant to consume lactose. It’s the sugar in all mammalian breast milk, which is produced by new mothers of all species to feed their newborns – in the case of dairy, that lactose is intended for baby cows. As we grow older, for many of us the digestive enzyme lactase that we produce to break down lactose dies out since we no longer need our mothers’ milk, and so we develop IBS-type symptoms when we consume lactose. Lactose intolerance is much rarer in Caucasian populations than in Asian, African and Middle-Eastern populations, as over the last 20,000 years peoples that were consuming large amounts of dairy evolved to continue producing lactase into adulthood. However, the large number of lactose-intolerant adults who haven’t counter-intuitively “evolved” go to show that cutting dairy out is really what our bodies might be asking for.

Once I consciously realised the reason why I (along with many other adults) was lactose intolerant, I felt like a hypocrite. Was it weirder to get innovative and make milk and cheese out of foods nature totally intended for me to consume, or to steal milk intended for a baby of another species that would make me sick without it being chemically pre-digested for me first?

The best thing about having vegan “dairy alternatives” is that I never get that feeling of missing out that I did when I was relegated to lactose-free milk – Bonsoy doesn’t taste like a weird, slightly sweeter version of what it’s supposed to be because it would hurt me otherwise. It’s just something I can drink with no alterations because I’m meant to be able to digest it – and it feels pretty good emotionally too, because…

  • You don’t have to remain wilfully ignorant to enjoy your (vegan) food

When I was convinced I couldn’t cut out cheese, what I knew about the dairy industry I tried to push down and forget about. It distressed me too much to think about being complicit in the horrors I had unwillingly heard about, let alone what I knew were many more that I didn’t. I actively avoided learning more about the necessary cruelties cows are subjected to in order to produce milk – such as the repeated artificial insemination dairy cows are subjected to, or that farmers have to burn off male calves’ horns (without anaesthesia) so they don’t gore each other – because I wouldn’t be able to reconcile my guilt with my behaviour. I felt that fully cutting out dairy was impossible for me, and vegans were cruel for making me feel guilty about something I couldn’t change.

When we learn about animal cruelty and the inescapable violations of the dignity of animals that must be committed for us to eat their flesh and milk, we aren’t being pushed into a corner of despair from which there is no escape. We’re being given a choice to do the right thing. There is one choice we can make that is both at least a neutral decision for our health and a positive decision for animals and the world we live in. It can be challenging, sure, but once you make the leap you’ll probably surprise yourself because…

  • You’re less dependent on dairy than you realise

When it comes down to it, you control your diet – your diet doesn’t control you. Cheese and dairy are very popular flavours, but so many people choose to go vegan and give them up because whether for their health, the environment, or the animals, something else matters more to them. What makes them more capable than you?

The truth is there is nothing special about people who decide to go vegan besides a willingness to do as well as they can every day – even if that means messing up at first, or admitting we’ve been accidentally using a non-vegan product years into a vegan journey (it happens!). Veganism is about doing as much as is practicably possible to reduce animal suffering – not about being a saint. But the fact is, for almost everyone, cutting out dairy is well within the realm of what is practicably possible.

Every day we have a choice, with every meal we eat, to consume with kindness. The great thing about being in control of your choices is that there is no expiration date for choosing to act with your values. If you feel guilty that you haven’t cut out dairy already, that’s okay – you could’ve cut dairy out a year ago, or a week ago, or today, or in two weeks’ time, and each of those options is equally valid.

You can’t change what you should have done, but right now you have a choice – what’s it going to be? Sure, you can try tomorrow, or next week if there’s a real reason why today is not the day, but maybe it’s time to ask yourself – why not today? Even if you know you can’t expect perfection from yourself from day one, it’s better to try and slip up a little now than never attempting to do better.

Whenever you feel ready, know that there are whole communities of people who have gone before you, and I promise you’ll surprise yourself with what you are capable of doing when you believe in your capacity to create change, however small.


By Julian Palacios