This column is not about cheese. Not real cheese, at least. Lately I've been paying attention to the increasing variety of non-cheese cheese products out there and realizing that living dairy-free does not negate lusty feelings for a gooey grilled sandwich. So how does one navigate this world of faux fromage? I decided to take the plunge and report back. After all, though cheese is a staple of my diet, I needed back-up in case I wanted to invite my vegan friends over for a bad movie and good nachos.
I didn't find a single product that I would cheerfully slice straight out of the fridge into a ham sandwich. And I did come across a creation that looked eerily like a giant Pepto-Bismol tablet (yes, "Sheese," I'm talking about you). But if you're simply craving the pleasure of melted cheese on pizza, there's hope.
Perhaps the most common reason for skipping the cheese course is lactose intolerance, which is an inability to digest the sugar (lactose) in milk. People vary in the amount of lactose they can handle. The good news is that lactose is found mostly in the whey component of the milk and much of it is lost when cheese is curdled for cheese making. In fact, most lactose disappears within a few weeks of aging as it is consumed during fermentation by the culture in the cheese. What this all means is that young, soft or fresh cheeses may be difficult to digest if you're lactose-intolerant, but all is not lost. Try eating aged cheeses (old cheddar, parmesan), which should be lactose-free and see what you can handle. (I know I said I wouldn't talk about cheese, but old habits die hard.)
There are also brands of cheese (like L'Ancêtre, which I found at Whole Foods and other health stores) that test for lactose content and state "lactose free" on their packaging.
Casein, which is the protein found in milk, might also be a concern for people who are sensitive to it or who are looking to eat dairy-free. Just because a product says it is lactose-free does not mean it is casein-free, and some soy products do contain casein, including some "dairy-free" products (though label regulations are improving). Vegans need to be cautious, too, to ensure they are eating animal-free food. Look for the words "casein-free" if the product is not marked "vegan" or check the ingredients.
As a vegetarian you might still eat cheese but should look for products that avoid the traditionally used animal rennet (which comes from the stomach of the dairy animal). Look for cheeses made with plant-based rennet or microbial enzymes (Grey Owl from Quebec or Devil's Rock blue cheese are examples).
After a few faux pas I was pleasantly surprised to find cheese "alternatives" that could satisfy grilled cheese cravings and give a "cheesy" feel to dishes like pizza or lasagna that seem to demand some form of ooze. Though I must admit, once my mission was accomplished, I washed it all down with a big hunk of real, aged cheddar. And sorry to say, there's no comparison.
Daiya Mozzarella-Style Shreds
Claims: dairy-, lactose- and casein-free, gluten- and soy-free
Main Ingredients: tapioca and arrowroot
By far the best. The packaging claims that the cheese "melts and stretches," but even unmelted it's edible - savoury with a cheese-like flavour comparable to white cheddar popcorn. When melted, the Daiya shreds never completely lost their shape but they did have some pull and stretch and I could see this working on nachos, pizza or topping lasagna. I was so inspired that I tried it in a simple béchamel sauce (for a mac and cheese base) and although the cheese shreds never totally dissolved they were very soft and definitely gave a cheese flavour. Depending on how picky you are this could pass in an alternative mac and cheese.
Galaxy Veggie Slices
Claims: cholesterol- and lactose-free, "gourmet melt"
Main ingredient: soy
My second choice because it actually resembles what it's trying to recreate - a processed cheese slice. Looks like a cheese slice, tastes like a cheese slice and melts (almost) as well as a cheese slice.
Galaxy Vegan Grated Topping
Claims: cholesterol-, casein- and lactose-free, Parmesan flavour
Main ingredient: soy
For what it is, it works. In appearance it resembles the processed Parmesan you can get in the grocery store and it tastes quite similar. Its smell is artificial but not off-putting. The finish has a wet cardboard note but when sprinkled on pasta it's a decent (processed) Parmesan substitute.
Galaxy "Rice" cheddar style flavour
Claims: soy-free, cholesterol- and lactose-free also "gourmet melt"
Main Ingredient: organic rice flour
This block of "rice" actually resembles orange cheddar, if you squint a bit. It had a decent savoury flavour (Velveeta-like) with no terrible aftertaste. Unfortunately, this was the worst melter of the bunch - it held its shape too well when sliced and put under the grill, though it grated easily so you could probably spread it out more. Galaxy also produces a Rice Vegan option that's casein-free.
Other common options:
The Original Soy Co. Mozzarella Flavoured Loaf (contains casein)
This had a bland, cardboard taste which did improve when melted (became neutral essentially). If you dressed it up with some roasted red peppers or sun-dried tomato, it could pass.
Galaxy Vegan (cheddar style flavour, dairy-free and lactose-free, soy-based)
The vegan cheddar had an unappetizing sun-faded orange colour with a strong cardboard aftertaste that did not go away, nor could it be ignored.
Bute Island Foods Sheese (medium cheddar style, dairy- and lactose-free, vegan)
Working up the courage to taste this unappetizing product unmelted was a challenge (astonishingly, the image on the package suggests slicing it up on a cheese board). It didn't melt very well - the heat made the unpleasant taste more pronounced, giving it an odd, sweet character. By far the worst.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.