Just Like Cheese?

Avoiding "Addiction" with Dairy-Free Alternatives

Recently, I lost 15 pounds by eliminating cheese, sweets and alcohol from my diet. Giving up cookies and soy ice cream wasn’t so hard, and switching to unsweetened soymilk was easy. Even eliminating alcohol wasn’t really as big of a challenge as I thought it might be, though I still had a martini here and there with friends.

Eliminating cheese, however, was a daily torture. Visions of grilled-cheese sandwiches would dance through my head at odd moments, and free sample chunks of cheddar at the supermarket would make my mouth water.

The latest cheese replacements are made from soy, rice and even hemp, but some still contain animal products.

Is Cheese a Drug?

When I started seeing articles declaring that cheese could be addictive, it didn’t take much to convince me that I was a recovering cheese addict. Or was I? Was there something found naturally in cheese that is as habit-forming as the caffeine in coffee?

When put on a strict, meat- and dairy-free "vegan" regimen, the food most missed by 59 overweight post-menopausal women was cheese. These results prompted researchers at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM)—which advocates a vegan diet as being the most healthful for American adults—to question what about cheese makes it so appealing.

Some have argued that the high fat content in cheese (up to 70 percent of its volume, and most of it saturated) and its creamy texture and characteristic aroma make it an especially desirable "comfort food." Holistic health and nutrition counselor Cynthia Stadd points out, "High fat foods tend to calm us down."

Amy Lanou, PCRM’s nutrition director, argues that it’s more likely something called casein that makes cheese addictive. "Cheese is a concentrate of protein and fat, and casein is a type of protein found naturally in milk. Caseins convert to casomorphines, which are chemically similar to morphine, when they break down during digestion. It’s these casomorphines that are addictive," says Lanou. "All mammalian mothers" milk contains casomorphines so that the young will return to the breast for milk." Since we are the only mammal that regularly drinks the milk of other animals, Lanou posits that it’s this process that’s behind humanity’s affection for cheese.

Research by Dr. Neal Barnard of PCRM, the author of Breaking the Food Seduction: Behind Food Cravings and Seven Steps to End Them Naturally, has shown that naloxene, an opiate-blocker used to treat morphine and heroin overdoses, reduces the desire for chocolate, sugar, cheese and meat. This suggests, writes Barnard, that "their attraction does indeed come from drug-like effects."

Deanna Rose, a spokesperson for the National Dairy Council and a registered dietitian, counters that there is "absolutely no scientific truth to Barnard’s claim about the possibly addictive properties of cheese," she adds. "There are no "good" or "bad" foods. It’s important not to cut whole food groups out of one’s diet. And it is important to enjoy one’s food. If you enjoy cheese, enjoy it in moderation." She points out that Europeans eat about twice as much cheese as Americans, but don’t suffer from the same obesity epidemic and have longer lifespans.

The new cheeses being promoted by the National Dairy Council include pre-cut slices of cheddar, single-serve spreadable cheese, and Cheese Animals—"individually packed zoo animals made of American cheese." Some critics argue that any European cheesemaker would choke on such processed cheese "product." There is also the environmental issue of so much extra packaging with individual snacks.

The Dairy Council, whose parent group Dairy Management produces the "Ahh, the Power of Cheese" television ads, also announces on its website with fanfare that cheese is now America’s number one snack food. But is a snack packed with saturated fat and cholesterol really the food America should be devouring? If you think the "cheese addiction" theory has some validity, then you can wean yourself using cheese substitutes, which are overall far lower in fat. Most have no cholesterol or lactose, which is a big draw for many.

"Veggie" Alternatives

I found some of the faux cheeses to be downright inedible, and, unfortunately, many of the substitutes came as individually wrapped slices, which result in a mountain of packaging. Soya Kass White Cheddar Style ($3.59 for eight ounces) is low in saturated fat and calories but rough on conventional taste buds, with an unpleasant gummy texture and an unidentifiable aftertaste. TofuRella cheddar flavor ($4.25 for 12 slices) is equally harsh on the palate, though also low in calories and fat compared to regular American cheese. Both of these brands contain (non-vegan) casein. Rella also offers hemp and almond-based cheese substitutes.

The very edible, and tasty-in-a-sandwich Good Slice Cheddar Style Cheese Alternative from Yves Veggie Cuisine ($2.59 for eight ounces) is lower in fat (two grams) and calories (35 per slice) than all the others, but also contains casein. Tofutti Soy Cheese Slices, American Cheese Flavor ($2.19 for eight ounces), which are vegan, aren’t bad either, but do have higher fat (five grams) and calorie counts (70 per slice).

I found Lifetime Low Fat Jalapeno Jack Rice Cheese ($2.03 for eight ounces), made from rice milk, to be particularly tasty. It is low in fat and calories and tops pizza well (though don’t expect it to melt quite as well as conventional cheese). This is a vegan product I would certainly eat again.

Compared to the regular Wild Oats Organic Jalepeno Jack cheese ($3.99 for eight ounces), which has eight grams of fat per 28-gram serving and 100 calories, all except the Tofutti were significantly lower in fat and calories.

Galaxy Nutritional Foods offers a particularly wide range of alternative cheeses. Its "Veggie" brand encompasses veggie shreds (which melt well and taste pretty good too), cream cheese, feta crumbles, mozzarella for baking in pasta dishes, string cheese and parmesan replacers. Made from a blend of soy products and rice milk, the tasty product line is completely cholesterol free, although the foods do contain casein.

Even if some of the alternatives don’t taste great on their own, you may enjoy them as toppings or ingredients.

STARRE VARTAN enjoys discovering new foods as a freelance writer.