Guide to Vegan Cheese, Yogurt, and Other Non-Dairy Product Alternatives

by Reed Mangels, PhD, RD

When I began research for this article, I expected to find many vegan cheese and yogurt alternatives available. Was I surprised! Although most cheese alternatives clearly state that they do not contain lactose, the sugar found in dairy products, closer reading of the ingredient label reveals that they are still not vegan: they contain casein, a protein derived from cow's milk. This protein is added to give melted soy cheeses the same kind of stringy texture found in cheese made from cow's milk. As a result, there is a limited number of cheese and yogurt alternatives on the market that do not contain animal products. What are their ingredients? How do they rate nutritionally? What about flavor and consistency?

Non-dairy cheese alternatives may be made with soy products like isolated soy protein and tofu, or with rice or oat milk. Various gums, cornstarch, and tapioca are used to provide a solid cheese-like texture. VeganRella and Soymage both use some organic ingredients to produce their cheese alternatives; Vegi-Kaas does not use genetically-modified ingredients.

Ingredients in cream cheese alternatives include isolated soy protein, tofu, and miso. Soymage and 21st Century Foods make cream cheese alternatives with some organic ingredients. Sour cream alternatives are made with isolated soy protein, tofu, and brown rice. Soymage and Soyco make sour cream alternatives with some organic ingredients. I found one coffee cream alternative that was made with organic soymilk and one whipped topping alternative made with tofu. Yogurt alternatives are made with soymilk and may be sweetened with organic raw sugar cane crystals, evaporated cane juice, corn syrup solids, or corn sugar. Soya yogurt alternative uses organic ingredients; Whole Soy and White Wave Silk yogurts use soybeans grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers.

How do dairy alternatives compare with dairy products, from a nutritional standpoint? Dairy alternatives have no cholesterol; cheese made from cow's milk has 15 to 30 milligrams of cholesterol per ounce. Cheese alternatives have fewer calories and less protein and fat, but more sodium than dairy cheese. Cream cheese alternatives have fewer calories and fat than dairy cream cheese; cream cheese alternatives have more sodium. Yogurt alternatives have fewer calories than yogurt. Protein content in yogurt alternatives is similar to or lower than yogurt; fat is similar or higher. Sour cream alternatives are generally lower in calories and fat but higher in sodium than sour cream.

One important difference between dairy alternatives and dairy products is that soy-based dairy alternatives contain isoflavones, substances found in soy products that appear to have a number of health benefits. A serving of yogurt alternative has about 20-25 milligrams of isoflavones, a substantial amount. The isoflavone content of soy cheese is variable but appears to be between 2 and 9 milligrams per ounce.

Dairy products are often recommended as calcium sources. Some non-dairy alternatives also contain calcium. White Wave Silk soy yogurt and Soymage Vegan Chunk cheese alternative contain 200-300 milligrams of calcium per serving and contain amounts of calcium similar to their dairy counterparts. Soyco Rice Lowfat Sour Cream Alternative, 21st Century Foods Tofu Cream Cheese, Soymage Vegan Cream Cheese Alternative, Soymage Vegan Sour Cream Alternative, and Soymage Vegan Singles all have 100-199 milligrams of calcium per serving. Other products have less than 100 milligrams of calcium in a serving and cannot be considered to be good sources of calcium.

How do they taste? Well, if you're expecting a stringy, gooey cheese to top pizza, you're going to be disappointed. Still, some vegan cheese alternatives can be pretty tasty and can add interest to dishes like steamed vegetables, bean burritos, and veggie pizza. Cheese alternatives tend to taste bland and may seem a bit grainy when cold. They melt into a puddle rather than forming strings. You can use them in a sandwich or in cooking, but don't count on them to provide much in the way of protein or calories unless you use a large amount.

Yogurt alternatives are a very acceptable product. Whole Soy yogurt is tangy and sweet. It tends to have a somewhat liquid consistency, but this varies from one batch to the next. White Wave Silk soy yogurt comes in a number of interesting flavors including Lemon-Kiwi, Orange Crème, Apricot-Mango, and Cappuccino. These yogurts can be a part of a quick light meal or snack.

Cream cheese alternatives taste sweeter than cream cheese but are acceptable when served on bagel. I've used them in cookie recipes that call for cream cheese with reasonable success. Other non-dairy products like Hip Whip (non-dairy whipped cream) and Parmesan cheese alternatives can be used in the same way dairy products are used.

Dairy alternatives are available at natural food stores and in some supermarkets. You can also make your own alternatives using ingredients like nutritional yeast, tofu, and agar agar. See Joanne Stepaniak's The Uncheese Cookbook, which is available through The Vegetarian Resource Group (see page 33), for more information.

Products are listed from lowest to highest sodium in each category. Dairy products are listed in red at the end of each category for comparison purposes.

Product Calories Protein (gms) Fat (gms) Sodium (mg)
Cheese Alternatives (1 ounce):
Vegi-Kaas, Cheddar 50 1 2 180
Vegi-Kaas, Mozzarella 50 1 2 200
VeganRella, Cheddar and Mozzarella 70 1 3 220
Soymage, Vegan Singles, Mozzarella 25 3 0 290
Soymage Vegan Chunk, Mozzarella 60 2 3 340
Soy of Joy Instead O'Cheese 50 3 2 480
Cheddar Cheese 114 7 9 176
Mozzarella Cheese, part-Skim 72 7 5 132
Yogurt (6 ounces):
White Wave, average of flavors 130 5 2 10
WholeSoy, average of fruit flavors 145 5 2.5 20
Soygurt, all flavors 102 7 4 n/a
Fruited lowfat yogurt 169 7 2 90
Cream Cheese Alternatives (1 ounce):
Soymage Vegan Cream Cheese Alternative 50 3 3 90
Tofutti Better Than Cream Cheese, all flavors 80 1 8 135
21st Century Foods, Tofu Cream Cheese 30 3 1 180
Cream Cheese 99 2 10 84
Sour Cream Alternatives (2 Tablespoons):
Soymage Vegan Lowfat Sour Cream Alternative 40 1 3 30
Soyco Rice Lowfat Sour Cream Alternative 40 1 3 50
Tofutti Sour Supreme 50 1 5 120
Sour Cream 51 1 5 13
Now & Zen Hip Whip (2 tablespoons) 15 0 1.5 0
Whipped Cream (2 tablespoons) 15 <1 1 8
Silk Soymilk Creamer (1 Tablespoon) 15 0 1 5
Coffee Cream (1 Tablespoon) 29 <1 3 6
Soymage Vegan Topping, Parmesan (2 teaspoons) 15 2 .5 85
Parmesan Cheese (2 teaspoons) 16 1.5 1 65

Thanks to Deborah Pageau for helping to gather the information for this article.