Dear EarthTalk: My body doesn’t tolerate cheese well. Are there dairy-free cheeses that will be easier on my constitution and better for the environment, too? — Steve Sullivan, Seattle, WA
With some 30 to 50 million Americans suffering from various degrees of lactose intolerance, and an estimated three million of us now eating animal-free (vegan) diets for humane, environmental, and/or health reasons, the production of alternatives to dairy products has started to become big business.
But while substitutes for milks and ice creams abound, mostly soy- or rice-based blends that have come a long way since they first appeared on grocery shelves, finding satisfactory alternatives to the many varieties of cheese can be a challenge. But the choices are expanding rapidly.
The first place to look might just be your regular supermarket’s produce section—that’s often where you’ll find Galaxy Foods‘ Veggie line of non-dairy cheeses. After all, they are made from soy, which is produce. Galaxy’s offerings come shredded, grated, in slices, and in hunks. Fans swear they taste just like the real thing. And they are all excellent sources of calcium without cholesterol, saturated/trans fats, or lactose.
Galaxy also offers cheeses made from rice. And while some of both the Rice Brand and Veggie line contain small amounts of cultured milk salt, dried skim milk protein, and trace amounts of lactose, Galaxy also makes two purely vegan varieties, usually found in the dairy sections of grocery or health food stores.
A few other popular brands made with rice include Rice Slices and Lifetime Low Fat Jalapeno Jack Rice Cheese. Check the shelves of your local organic or natural food market to find one or more to sample.
Another leading producer of dairy-free cheeses is Scotland’s Bute Island Foods. The company began making its own vegan hard cheese alternatives (sold under the Sheese brand name) in 1988, and has since expanded into cream cheese alternatives (Creamy Sheese) as well. From pizzas to sauces to sandwiches to spreads, Bute Island has vegan and lactose-intolerant cheese lovers covered.
Some other soy-based choices that get good reviews include Good Slice Cheddar Style Cheese Alternative (great for sandwiches), vegan-friendly Tofutti Soy Cheese Slices, Follow Your Heart’s Vegan Gourmet (pizza, anyone?), and Teese (it melts with the best of them), among others.
Do-it-yourselfers might want to experiment with making their own non-dairy cheese using ingredients such as tofu and yeast. A quick web search will yield many recipes for making cheese and for using non-dairy cheeses in favorite dishes. Many of the best are collected in Joanne Stepaniak’s The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook, available in some bookstores as well as from Amazon.com and other online vendors.
With so many good choices, not to mention recipes for home cooked varieties, many a vegetarian may just make the leap into full-fledged vegan eating. And existing vegans can rejoice: French onion soup (dairy-free, of course) is back on the menu.
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