What Is Vegan Cheese Made Of? A Guide to Vegan Cheeses

Smell that? It's the yummy stink of a lower-resource alternative to dairy.

Assortment of cheeses against a wood board

Andrey Zhuravlev / Getty Images

The explosion of vegan options in the dairy department is thanks to a booming interest in plant-based food. According to the Plant Based Foods Association, vegan cheese saw a 7% increase in sales in 2021, growing faster than its animal-based counterpart.

But what exactly is vegan cheese? Most versions use plant fats and proteins along with thickeners and additional flavors to simulate the taste and mouthfeel of dairy cheese without any animal products. 

Here, we break down the most common vegan cheese ingredients, the vegan cheese-making process, the types of vegan cheeses available, and how vegan cheese compares to dairy cheese in terms of sustainability.

Ingredients in Vegan Cheese

Vegan cheeses come in many flavors and styles, but most of them share a base of plant proteins and fats, most commonly from soy milk and nut milk.

Soy Milk

Soy milk is made from the water added to the soybean slurry during tofu production. The tiny remaining particles are removed from the liquid, and the soy milk is then fortified with vitamins and minerals.

Nuts

Nuts are actually fruits with a tough outer shell protecting an edible kernel. Nuts have protein and fat, making them an ideal base for vegan cheese. Popular nuts in vegan cheese include cashews, almonds, macadamia nuts, pecans, and pine (piñon) nuts. 

Seeds

Sunflower and pumpkin seeds, rich in fat and protein, make an excellent base for spreadable vegan cheeses.

Thickeners

Most commercially available vegan cheeses have additional thickeners to create the proper texture. Common ingredients like potato, tapioca, and corn starches and less familiar ingredients like arrowroot, agar-agar, carrageenan, konjac gum, and xanthan gum provide the bite density eaters have come to expect from dairy cheese.

Protein Powder

Again used for stabilization and texture, chickpea, pea, and potato protein often appear in vegan cheeses.

Oil

To give the vegan cheese a creamy mouthfeel, manufacturers frequently add high-fat canola, coconut, palm, and safflower oil. 

Acidifiers

Manufacturers will often add acidifiers like lemon juice, lactic acid, and glucono delta lactone to give vegan cheese a more sour taste that mimics dairy cheese.

Seasoning

Flavor-boosters like salt, nutritional yeast, onion, garlic, and other herbs are often added to provide dimension to the vegan cheese.

How Is Vegan Cheese Made?

Today’s vegan cheeses are prepared much like dairy cheese throughout history. Instead of adding bacterial cultures to ferment dairy milk, the cultures can be added to soy or nut milk, forming the base of many commercially available vegan cheeses. 

The most significant difference between vegan cheese and dairy cheese? Casein—a protein found only in the milk of mammals. Casein gives dairy cheese its signature stretchy, gooey texture. The proteins in plant-based milks don’t react to culturing agents in the same way, so vegan cheese has to be aged differently. 

Did You Know?

Food manufacturers are hard at work solving the problem of vegan casein, looking toward grass-fed fungi and microbes to create a vegan cheese texture that truly rivals its dairy analog. One such company is San Francisco-based startup New Culture which has harnessed the power of fermentation to develop animal-free casein.

Sometimes manufacturers add microbial rennet, a coagulating agent made from vegan-friendly fungi, yeast, or mold. (Traditional dairy cheese often uses animal rennet made from enzymes inside the stomachs of ruminant animals.) Whatever the agent, vegan cheese fermentation must control both temperature and humidity to achieve proper coagulation.

Is Vegan Cheese Sustainable? 

Vegan cheese is simply more sustainable than dairy cheese because plant-based foods require far less land and water than dairy. The only greenhouse gas emissions for vegan cheese come during processing and transportation, not from the food product itself, as in the case of cow and goat milk.

According to a 2021 life cycle assessment for the European-based vegan brand Violife, their vegan cheese reduces American consumers’ climate impact by around 50% and uses less than 30% of the land required to cultivate dairy cheese.

Still, vegan cheese does have a carbon footprint. Nuts are one of the most resource-intensive foods vegans consume. (For example, growing a single almond in California requires a whopping three gallons of water.) 

Soy, the other main ingredient in vegan cheese, is also associated heavily with the deforestation of the Amazon—although the vast majority of soy goes to livestock feed, not to humans. 

For plant-based eaters concerned with animal welfare, non-dairy cheese clearly takes the (vegan) cake. No animals are confined or killed, and per unit of protein produced, the water and land usage is far more productive than it is for animal proteins.

Vegan Cheese Products 

As plant-based eating continues to gain mainstream traction, vegans will see more and more companies offering non-dairy cheese alternatives. You can find vegan cheese of all stripes including soft, hard, cream, and shredded—all with no dairy or animal rennet.

Daiya

Known for their allergen-free non-dairy foods, Daiya not only carries vegan cheese but other products made with vegan cheese like cheesecake and mac and cheese.

  • Vegan Cheese Shreds (Cutting Board Italian 4 Cheeze Style Blend, Parmesan Style, Mexican 4 Cheeze Style Blend, Cheddar Style, Mozzarella Style, Spicy Monterey Jack Style, Cheddar and Mozza Style Blend
  • Vegan Cheese Slices (American Style, Smoked Gouda Style, Mozzarella Style, Cheddar Style, Swiss Style, Provolone Style)
  • Vegan Cheese Blocks (Medium Cheddar Style, Jalapeño Havarti Style, Monterey Jack Style, Smoked Gouda Style, Classic Mozz Style)
  • Vegan Cheese Sticks (Cheddar Style, Mozzarella Style)
  • Vegan Cream Cheese (Plain, Strawberry, Chive & Onion, Roasted Garlic & Herbs)
  • Vegan Cheese Sauce (Cheddar Style, Alfredo Style, Zesty Cheddar Style)

SoDelicious

Offering shreds, slices, and spreads, SoDelicious’ range of vegan cheeses can meet your every culinary need.

  • Mexican Style Shreds
  • Cheddar Style Shreds
  • Mozzarella Style Shreds
  • American Style Slices
  • Cheddar Style Slices
  • Creamy Original Cream Cheese Style Spread 
  • Chive and Onion Cream Cheese Style Spread 

Violife

A 100% vegan company, Violife offers a range of award-winning non-dairy cheeses. They also lead the charge in sustainability for vegan cheeses, conducting their own life cycle assessments and setting company-wide sustainability goals.

  • Vegan Cream Cheese (Original, Strawberry Flavor, Cream Cheese With Chives, Garlic and Herb, Cheddar Cream Cheese)
  • Vegan Cheese Shreds (Colby Jack, Mexican Style, Mozzarella, Cheddar)
  • Vegan Cheese Slices (Smoked Gouda Round, Cheddar, Smoked Provolone, Mature Cheddar)
  • Vegan Cheese Blocks (Epic Mozzarella Flavor Mini, Epic Cheddar Flavor Mini, Epic Mature Cheddar Flavor, Epic Smoked Cheddar Flavor, Just Like Feta, Just Like Parmesan, Mediterranean Style Grill Me)

Miyoko’s

Miyoko’s offers culture, plant-based cheeses and butter, calling itself the “creamery of tomorrow.” Their aged cheese wheels are unique in the vegan cheese world as their flavors emulate traditional soft dairy cheeses.

  • Vegan Mozzarella (Mozzarella, Mozzarella Smoked, Liquid Vegan Pizza Mozzarella)
  • Vegan Cheese Wheels (Double Cream Classic Chive, Double Cream Sundried Tomato Garlic, Double Cream Garlic Herb, Aged Sharp English Farmhouse, Aged Smoked English Farmhouse, Aged Herbes de Provence, Aged Black Ash, Fresh Winter Style Truffle)
  • Vegan Cream Cheese (Classic Plain, Everything, Savory Scallion, Fish-Free Lox, Cinnamon Raisin)
  • Vegan Roadhouse Cheddar (Classic Sharp, Garlic Chive)
  • Vegan Cheese Shreds (Cheddar, Pepper Jack)
  • Vegan Cheese Slices (Cheddar, Pepper Jack)
  • Vegan Cheese Blocks (Cheddar, Pepper Jack)
  • Vegan Cheese Sticks (Cheddar)

Field Roast

Field Roast boasts an array of plant-based products including sausages, burgers, appetizers, and more. Their Chao Creamery offers several options for plant-based eaters.

  • Vegan Shreds (Creamy Original, Mexican Style Blend)
  • Vegan Slices (Creamy Original Chao Slices, Tomato Cayenne Chao Slices, Smoked Original Chao Slices, Spicy Original Chao Slices, Golden Herb Chao Slices)
  • Vegan Cheese Blocks (Creamy Original Block)
Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is vegan cheese made up of?

    Most vegan cheese comes from plant-based fats and proteins (mostly soybeans and nuts like cashews) that have been fermented with bacteria then mixed with thickeners and flavorings to provide a proper taste and texture.

  • Is vegan cheese harmful?

    Vegan cheese is not harmful to people, animals, or the planet. Although processed and often high in saturated fat and sodium, vegan cheese has a place in a balanced diet if eaten in moderation. No animals are harmed in its production, and it only requires a fraction of the water and land needed to cultivate dairy cheese.

  • Why does vegan cheese not melt?

    The stretch and melt of cheese is thanks to a protein found only in the milk of mammals called casein. Without it, the plant fats can’t achieve that same texture.