By Rosie Schwartz, RD, FDC
Are you one of the many Canadians heeding nutrition recommendations to eat more plant-based options? Are you moving towards a flexitarian pattern of eating – still eating animal-based selections but less often than before or are you choosing to become vegan? Whatever your eating style, you have likely noticed that more and more plant-based products are appearing on the market and this includes cheese.
But not all cheeses are created equal.
Sorting through the current cheese offerings, at your local store, including both dairy and plant-based can be a tough task indeed. Besides for its palate-pleasing attributes, many people have traditionally chosen cheese for its nutritional value. Cheeses, made from dairy products, are usually chock full of calcium, protein, B vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium and zinc. With all these new products in the dairy case, you might need to do a little sleuthing and label reading to ensure you’re getting just what you are looking for.
As you navigate the offerings, a very helpful tactic in making smart choices is to consider if you’re having the cheese for a specific purpose. Are you opting for cheese as a protein alternative at a meal or as a source of calcium? Or maybe you’re including it as a cooking ingredient for taste, for example, to top a pizza or for a melty lasagna? But at the same time, are you trying to cut down on fat for health reasons or are you simply opting to eat more plant-based foods?
Canada’s Food Guide recommends that one quarter of the plate contain protein foods. If you’re selecting a cheddar cheese made from cow’s milk, you will consume about 7 grams of protein per ounce. A plant-based cheddar made with nuts, such as cashews, will clock in at about 3 grams per ounce.
But be aware there are plenty of plant-based cheeses that offer zero grams of protein. They’re usually made with modified food starch and coconut oil but no sources of protein, such as nuts.
For meals that contain these types of plant-based cheeses, it’s key to include another menu choice that provides adequate protein. This is especially important for growing kids as somehow the term cheese implies protein. So if you’re packing a school lunch with one of these choices, be sure to include a protein-rich selection, such as chickpeas or beans. For instance, this could be a bean dip or tofu or some pumpkin or sesame seeds. As well, take note that the nut-containing plant-based cheeses may be off limits at many schools which are nut-free.
|Product||Amount||Protein Content (Grams)|
|Dairy Cheese – cheddar or mozzarella||1 ounce/28 grams||7|
|Nut based cheese||1 ounce/28 grams||3|
|Coconut oil/modified starch base||1 ounce/28 grams||0|
|Kidney beans, cooked||1/2 cup/125 mL||8|
|Silken tofu, raw||1/2 cup/125 mL||10|
If you’re opting for cheese to help meet your calcium quotas, dairy choices may offer significant contributions while plant-based ones tend to fall short. While many non-dairy milk substitutes are fortified to almost match cow’s milk nutritional content, it’s not the case with plant-based cheeses, especially when it comes to calcium.
Compare the calcium content of an ounce of cheddar cheese made from cow’s milk, which provides just under 200 milligrams of calcium for one ounce, to a plant-based cheddar type with under 30 milligrams per ounce.
Again, as with the protein, if you’re including a plant-based cheese, be sure to include other calcium-rich options.
A matter of fat
Somehow many of those seeking heart-healthy cheeses are mistakenly bestowing a health halo on plant-based cheeses purely because of the term “plant-based”. While choosing a plant-based cheese over a dairy one may seem like a way to decrease the amount of saturated fat you may consume, it’s not always the case. Some plant-based cheeses contain mainly combinations of modified starch and coconut oil, which is highly saturated. They may actually supply more saturated fat than a reduced-fat dairy cheese. Again, it’s key to read the ingredient list and nutrition facts label.
Those plant-based cheeses made from a nut base can offer up some healthy fats. Check out the various fat contents in one ounce of these different cheeses.
|Product||Saturated Fat (Grams)||Total Fat (Grams)|
|Whole milk mozzarella||4.4||7|
|Plant-based mozzarella shreds|
-made with cashews
-nut free, made with coconut oil
In keeping with Canada’s Food Guide recommendations, look for products that are minimally processed. As you can see, label reading is key in making smart choices when shopping for plant-based cheeses – both for maximizing your nutritional intake and limiting highly processed foods. So it might be wise to enjoy your lasagna made with a plant-based nut-free cheese less often than if it contains a cheese made from dairy or a nut-containing plant-based one.