Boy do people love their cheese. Have you ever noticed how otherwise rational human beings swoon and get starry eyed at the mere mention of the food? For many of the people I meet who stop eating dairy products, giving up cheese is one of the hardest parts. Why do we love cheese so much? Well, one reason may be that when we digest casein, the main protein in cheese, our bodies produce casomorphins—compounds that have a drug-like impact on the human brain. It also could be that it tastes really, really good.
So it’s not surprising that many vegan or dairy-free newbies feel a bit of withdrawal when they cut the cheese (oh, you know what I meant!). While you can swap cow’s milk for coconut in your smoothie or cereal without really noticing a difference, cheese is simply not a food that’s easily imitated. The flavor, the texture, the melting capability are all qualities you rarely find in other foods, even the handful of vegan and non-dairy products on the market that try so hard to imitate our beloved cheese.
In my research, I’ve found that non-dairy cheeses seem to each have one, maybe two, of those cheese-like qualities you’d look for—but never all three. One that tastes OK crumbles like a cracker and burns instead of melts. Another that will actually spread out and bubble on your pizza has the faint flavor of plastic (this is all my opinion of course—maybe you’ve found one you love; if so please share below!). Not to mention, some of the non-dairy cheeses on the market actually contain the milk protein casein, making them not vegan at all (OK for someone who skips cheese because of lactose intolerance; not so much for a vegan).
Another area where all of the vegan cheeses I’ve seen are lacking is their nutritional values. With ingredients like vegetable glycerin (a byproduct of soap production) and carrageenan (a thickener that has been found to cause inflammation), I have yet to find a vegan cheese that really adds something in terms of nutrients. For the sake of comparison, one slice of Swiss cheese has 80 calories, 5 grams of protein, and 15% of your daily calcium need. The vegan cheeses I tried when I was writing The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian contained around the same number of calories per slice, but had hardly any protein or calcium.
Don’t get me wrong—when you’re shifting to a vegan or dairy-free diet and craving some cheese, it’s great to find options to help you scratch that itch. But I’m looking out for you—which is why I’m always on the hunt for vegetarian and vegan options that actually add something more to your diet.
So when I heard that Field Roast, a Seattle-based company that makes delicious—and nutritious—vegan sausages just came out with a new fake cheese called “chao slices,” I was intrigued. I’ve been very impressed with Field Roast’s other products in the past, and am generally a fan of the “real food” ingredients they tend to use (as opposed to other companies, that use more mysterious sounding ones). When I found all three chao flavors at my local Whole Foods Market, I tossed them in my cart and couldn’t wait to get home and experiment.
The main ingredients in all three flavors of chao slices are filtered water, coconut oil, modified corn and potato starch, and fermented chao tofu. While I knew that coconut oil and the corn and potato starches wouldn’t add much more than saturated fat and carbs, I was excited by the prospect of fermented chao tofu. Did this mean that the cheeses would be a good source of protein, like tofu itself? Sadly, they are not. Chao, I learned, is fermented tofu that some people compare in flavor and texture to a creamy blue cheese. It’s used more as a seasoning than a main ingredient in the chao slices, which explains why they each contain no protein at all (and I’m not sure “chao slices” is the best name for this product, since the chao in it actually plays a pretty minor role). The chao slices are also, like the other vegan cheeses on the market, devoid of calcium as well.
Okay, so you’re not adding much nutrition-wise to your diet by adding in vegan chao. But what about the flavor? Well…here’s the good news. It tastes downright cheesy. The plain flavor is a good stand-in for a milder cheese like mozzarella or muenster. I tried it plain, and then melted it into a Reuben sandwich, and it was good. Melty and cheesy and not at all plastic-like. The coconut herb flavor would work well paired with crackers and grapes, and the flavorful tomato cayenne could be nice on a sandwich with avocado and veggies, or shredded on top of a taco salad or bean enchiladas.
In a nutshell, here are the pros and cons of Field Roast’s chao slices:
+Slices peel apart and feel like real cheese
+Ingredients are more “real” food-based than other vegan cheeses
+It’s actually vegan—no casein
-Not much to offer nutritionally
-Pricey (I paid $5.99 for each 10-slice pack)
Here’s my recommendation: If you’re really missing cheese, use chao slices as a condiment or a once-in-a while treat. Melted on top of a black bean burger or cold and layered with veggie deli slices, you’ll love the cheese-like flavor and texture the chao slices offer and still get the nutrition you need. But skip it in those meals where you’d be depending on the cheese to help power you through the day (by providing satiating protein and other nutrients) in place of more satisfying (and admittedly less cheese-like) options like hummus, tofu, and tempeh.
Have you tried Field Roast’s vegan chao slices? What did you think? What’s your favorite non-dairy cheese alternative?