The evolution of dairy-free cheese

26 May 2022, 08:07 AM
  • With more and more consumers giving up dairy, is it time to dedicate more space to vegan cheese?
The evolution of dairy-free cheese

Historically, vegan cheesemakers have not been able to come remotely close to creating products that mimic real cheese — no one would confuse plasticky shreds of coconut oil and starch with Mozzarella or Cheddar. And because of this, vegan cheese was dismissed by cheese lovers long ago. But that didn’t stop cheesemakers from trying, and over the past few years, their efforts have created a vegan cheese landscape that includes high-quality nut-based artisan cheese that really hits the spot.

According to a recent market research report, the global vegan cheese market was valued at just over $1 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow almost 13% in the next seven years. And with delicious artisan options breaking into the market, now is the time to consider stocking dairy-free cheese and getting ahead of the game.

The pandemic effect
The Covid-19 pandemic affected us in a myriad of ways, but one significant impact was an exponential interest in health. The public did its research, and many decided to adopt plant-based or flexitarian eating to improve their health and wellbeing. Rachel Stevens, co-founder of La Fauxmagerie, the UK’s first 100% vegan cheesemonger, explained how Covid-19 sparked interest in her business. “During the pandemic, we’ve seen a big increase in sales (especially online sales during lockdown periods). We’ve also seen more people visiting our shop for the first time as they adopt a more plant-based lifestyle!

“The onset of the pandemic certainly increased people’s awareness of the risks associated with animal agriculture for obvious reasons. It’s no surprise with all the turmoil in the last couple of years, many people are hoping to make the world a better place by eating more compassionately and sustainably.”

Ellie Brown, founder of artisan vegan cheese brand Kinda Co. mirrored these thoughts. “I think the pandemic has created a much greater focus on people’s health, especially concerning their diets. There has been much publicity on the health benefits derived from eating a diet with fewer animal products, through films such as What the Health and I think the pandemic has really brought this to the forefront of people’s minds.

“At Kinda Co. we find we’re gaining more and more customers who wouldn’t necessarily label themselves as fully plant-based. However, they’re aware of the positive impact of reducing their dairy intake and once they’ve found our cheeses are so happy, they can eat something that still delivers on taste, that also has the health benefits of being made from natural ingredients like nuts.”

Innovation in vegan cheese
As interest in plant-based products grew, the race to create the perfect vegan cheese also accelerated, causing a recent period of mass innovation. James Deane, managing director of cashew-based cheese brand Tyne Chease explained this dairy-free cheese revolution. “Back in 2014, the only vegan cheese you could find was what we call the ‘supermarket melty’ style cheeses. These were the vegan cheeses made from coconut oil, soya etc that were mass-produced for supermarkets etc.

“When we launched in 2014, we were the first artisan vegan cheese producers in the UK. We handmake our products using cashews as a base, culturing them, ageing them, and hand forming them into a vegan cheese round that had a natural ‘cheese’ flavour. We took what the dairy industry had been doing for thousands of years and turned it vegan.

“Artisan vegan cheese companies were popping up in other countries in the year or so before we started but it was a brand-new industry. Instead of quick and relatively easy to make vegan cheeses, the UK now had a product that took time to make, just like dairy cheese. Since then, artisan vegan cheese has boomed in the UK and across the world. We see new companies popping up almost every year, all of which are offering artisan cultured vegan cheese. It’s truly amazing to see.”

This is something Rachel has also seen in the industry, describing, “In the last four years, we’ve not only seen an increase in popularity but also an increase in the standard customers have come to expect from vegan products. Gone are the days of customers being satisfied with a block of oil-based ‘mozzarella style’.

“Now, customers are asking for mould-ripened blues, crumbly, aged cheddars, and melty camemberts. This increase in demand for more complex products that are closer to their dairy counterparts is what our business has focused on over the last few years.

Zoe Warrington, co-founder of online vegan deli Nomaggio expanded on these thoughts: “Some Artisan vegan cheesemakers have adopted some of the methods and techniques of traditional cheese-making, which has led them to be similar not only visually but in taste and texture as well. Artisan vegan cheeses tend to be a higher-end gourmet product perfect for your grazing board or cheese and wine night.”

Artisan vegan cheese vs supermarket options
As Rachel explains, a common issue for customers is that many supermarket vegan cheeses don’t deliver on the nutrition, texture or flavour front, as they are mostly oil-based. “That’s where we come in, offering wholefoods-based, indulgent cheeses that customers can enjoy on their cheeseboards! Our cheeses sit on the more premium end but are much higher quality in terms of nutrition, creaminess and the kind of richness and tanginess we all crave when giving up dairy.”

“We’ve found our range has helped ‘bridge the gap’ for many moving from dairy to plant-based cheeses, and we’re constantly striving to increase the accessibility of these products for our customers, be it from a physical or pricing perspective.”

This is where independents can really overshadow supermarkets, by offering high-quality vegan cheeses that larger, national retailers just aren’t able or willing to stock. In this way, artisan dairy-free cheese has a natural home at fine food retailers and embracing it with open arms will enable them to stand out.

Is dairy-free the future of cheese?
The rise of veganism shows no signs of stopping, and only by championing the innovations within the dairy-free cheese industry can independents participate in its bright future.

According to Ellie, the vegan cheese category will explode in the next few years, and indie retailers shouldn’t miss out. “It’s fair to assume the growth of dairy-free cheese will mirror the huge expansion in plant-based meat products. Giving up cheese is such a barrier for many people who wish to adopt a more plant-based lifestyle. With the year-on-year increase in people switching to eating less dairy, I think more and more consumers will be looking for an alternative. I think there’s room for a lot of exciting innovation and new products to hit the market.”

As James puts it, “The future of vegan cheese is so high in potential. With new amazing products constantly being created, new entrepreneurs gaining confidence in their ideas, seeing that they will be appreciated and accepted by the world, and food scientists and other creators, starting to dissect the fundamentals of dairy cheese and how those fundamentals can be translated to a plant-based product, it is truly an exciting time to be a part of this industry.”

more like this
close stay up-to-date with our free newsletter | expert intel | tailored industry news | new-to-know trend analysis | sign up | speciality food daily briefing