I don't know about you, but cheese pretty much had me at hello. My first food memories are of the warm, gooey macaroni and cheese my mom used to make to soothe my toddler tantrums or simply help me quiet down for the evening. I remember my beloved grandmother handing me American singles, while laughing and calling me her "dear little mouse." I recall all those girlhood sleepovers, where we'd stay up late and order pizzaextra cheese, please.
Cheese was celebration, cheese was comfort, cheese was love. Cheese is a food so integrated into the fiber of my being that I can hardly imagine a life without the stuffdespite the migraine headaches it might be triggering, despite the weight I've gained from eating too much of it.
Lately, though, along with the usual creamy, savory satisfaction with every bite, I've been experiencing a heaping helping of cognitive dissonance. It started last year with an action alert e-mail from the Humane Society of the United States. A couple of clicks later, I was watching the infamous downer-cow video from the Hallmark Meat Processing plant. The HSUSwhich shot the footage in an undercover investigationexplained that these were dairy cows, at the end of long service and utterly spent, unable even to rise to the occasion of their own slaughter. I knew that cattle raised for meat were destined to meet a bad endbut dairy cows too?
Yes, says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS: "If anything, dairy cows in the industrial system may have it worse by virtue of the duration of their suffering. They are continually impregnated and separated from their calves, and they are subject to multiple health problems, including mastitis. They are treated as machinesand in the end, they are killed for their meat."
Milk isn't the only thing a dairy cow produces. Ties between animal-oriented agribusiness and global warming are undeniable. The United Nations's seminal report "Livestock's Long Shadow" implicated the livestock sector in 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. "Cattle operations release significant amounts of methane and nitrous oxidepartially because of the large amounts of concentrated manure associated with confined animal feeding operations, and partially because cows are ruminants and their digestive processes naturally produce methane," says food activist Anna Lappé, who's at work on a book about climate change and the future of eating. "Methane is 23 times more warming than carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide is 296 times more warming." And industrial dairy farms are just as culpable as farms that raise cows for slaughter.
A new realization is dawning: In order to lead a life that's healthful, ethical, and environmentally sound, I'll have to do what I've been avoidingdreadingfor years. I'll have to overcome my cheese addiction.
Going Cold Tofu
And make no mistake: it is an addiction, says Neal Barnard, MD, VT's "Ask the Doc" columnist, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and author of Breaking the Food Seduction.
Actually, it's more accurate to say I'm hooked on casomorphins, the tiny, biologically active compounds produced when my body breaks down milk proteins. "Casomorphins attach to the brain's opiate receptors to cause a calming effect in much the same way heroin and morphine do," Barnard explains. "In fact, since cheese is processed to express out all the liquid, it's an incredibly concentrated source of casomorphinsyou might call it dairy crack."
What to do? "You do what you do with any drug you're hooked onyou get away from it," Barnard concludes. "You don't look at it, you don't smell it, and you certainly don't eat it." From Barnard's point of view, cheese is simply an irredeemable source of calories and saturated fat.
Once addicted to cheese herself, vegan chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz, author of Veganomicon and Vegan with a Vengeance, echoes Barnard in counseling abstinence. "You need to give yourself a couple of months without cheese, some time to let your taste buds catch up with your ethics," she says. "It might sound like deprivation at first, but your body will adjust. I started loving Brussels sprouts and butternut squash; I could taste the subtle difference between a raw and a toasted pumpkin seed. Once you figure out that you don't have to cover everything in cheese, you start to become almost like a supertaster."
Jo Stepaniak, MSEd, author of The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook, calls this cooling-off period "going cold tofu." But going without cheese doesn't mean you can't enjoy some of the same sensations in your diet. "Avocados and nut butters impart a rich, creamy mouthfeel similar to cheese," she says. "A baked sweet potato with peanut or almond butter will produce that same satisfying sensation without the unpleasant side effects. Arugula has a sharp bite that makes your taste buds sit up and go, 'Wow!' " Buy prewashed baby arugula and eat it right out of the container whenever you get a cheese craving.
Another of Stepaniak's favorite cheese weanersand a great substitute for a grilled cheese sandwichis an open-faced peanut butter-and-broccoli sandwich. "Simply spread warm toast with your favorite peanut butter, top it with steamed, bite-sized broccoli florets, and drizzle it with tamari. The combination of creamy peanut butter, pungent broccoli, and salty tamari is wonderful. Plant-based alternatives to cheese are not only delicious, they are creative and fun."
After a month or two has passed, go ahead and start playing around with cheese substitutes, whether homemade or store-bought. Just don't rush it. And blend the heck out of whatever you are adding to your substitute of choice. "Dairy molecules are as tiny as tiny can be, so when they hit your tongue, it gives you an immediate mmm," Moskowitz explains. "When you do vegan versions of cheese sauces, you should use a good food processor or Vita-Mix and work to simulate that effect. And you have to manage your expectations."
The Middle Path
Or do you? Is abstinence the only way, or is there such a thing as cheese moderation? Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and author of The Flexitarian Diet, claims there is. "I see so many vegetarians who are closet cheeseaholics," she says. "I'm always working with them to get their cheese habit under controlnot because I think cheese is the devil, but because it's not giving them room for other types of plant proteins and other sources of healthier fats."
Blatner asks her clients to make an honest accounting of their habitsmany are shocked, as I was, to find out just how much cheese they are eating. "Cheese is a highly concentrated source of calories," she says. "You might not realize you're sabotaging your weight by sprinkling 500 sneaky little calories on top of your salads, soups, and sandwiches every day."
Once every shred is sorted and cube counted, Blatner recommends cutting that amount in half. Stay there for a week or two, then cut it in half again. Then again, and again...until you get down to 1 ounce or less of cheese per day, about the amount in a single piece of string cheese or sandwich slice, or 1/4 cup of shreds. And if you're going to limit your intake, make it count. Choose feta, sharp Cheddar, or Parmesansomething with lots of flavor.
As for those nagging ethical and environmental concerns: buying from small, local producers can at least begin to address them. Choosing the organic label will ensure that no growth hormones or antibiotics were used to produce the cheese, and that the cows received organic feed and were allowed some access to outdoor pasture. "If you are diligent, you can seek out companies that are using sustainable methods and handling animals humanely," Lappé adds. She particularly likes the work of the Cornucopia Institute (cornucopia.org), which she relies on for its organic dairy scorecard.
"It would be tough for me to give up cheese," Lappé says. "I've decided not to, but to choose high-quality, sustainably created cheese whenever possible. Cheese production can take a lot more energy and resources than producing vegetable crops, so I don't take it for granted. I appreciate every bite."
The Calcium Question Many a cheese lover clings to her quesadillas with a rationalization: I'm a woman, I need calcium! Cheese is calcium-rich (an ounce of Cheddar contains 204 milligrams), but simply adding calcium to the system is not enough, says Amy Lanou, PhD, assistant professor of health and wellness at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. "It's important to create an environment in the body that encourages the bones to take up the calcium that's available, and retain the calcium they already have. Having acidic blood causes bone to leach calcium in an effort to neutralize the system, and it's ultimately lost in the urine. All dairy foods are acid-forming, and cheese is nine or 10 times more acid-forming than milk," she says.
Calcium: Good Veggie Sources
Tofu, made with calcium sulfate (½ cup)
Collard greens, boiled (1 cup)
Bok choy, boiled (1 cup)
Okra, boiled, (1 cup)
Broccoli, boiled (1 large stalk)
Mustard greens, boiled (1 cup)
Edamame (1 cup)
Almonds (¼ cup)
Adults should aim to get a total of 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily; teens need 1,300 milligrams. To determine a food's exact calcium content, Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, offers this simple label-reading trick: "Calcium is listed on labels as a percentage of recommended daily value. Since you're aiming for 1,000 milligrams, just drop the percentage sign and substitute a zero. So if a label for soymilk says it contains 30 percent of the daily value, you know it has 300 milligrams of calcium."
Most people flinch when you utter the words "vegan cheese substitute." But faux fromage has come a long way, as our intrepid author discovered when she conducted an informal taste test with friends. Here's what they found:
- Cheezly The Cheddar with faux bacon style melts nicely and even strings a bit. It's amazing stuff, hot or cold. veganessentials.com
- Sheese, imported from Scotland, offers an impressive array of styles. The Strong Cheddar makes a great grilled cheese sandwich, and the Blue Style is indistinguishable from the real thingchef Mahasti Vafaie of the Tomato Head restaurant in Knoxville, Tenn., whipped it up with silken tofu, garlic, and lemon juice to create the lightest, most delicious blue cheese dressing we've ever tasted. cosmosveganshoppe.com
- Teese soy-based cheese comes in cute-as-a-button logs. We loved the Mozzarella. Try it sliced in rounds on a baguette with fresh tomato and a drizzle of pesto.
- Follow Your Heart Vegan Gourmet cheeses were among the creamiest choices, with a satisfying mouthfeel. They stand up well to cooking too; try the Mozzarella on pizza and the Monterey Jack over nachos. followyourheart.com
- Galaxy Foods block-style Vegan Cheddar got mixed reviews. Avoid serving it cold, said tasters, but heat it up and it becomes creamy and delicious. Think of it as a go-to cheese for enchiladas, casseroles, and stratas. galaxyfoods.com
About our author
Hillari Dowdle, a freelance writer and editor based in Knoxville, Tenn., has not gone completely “cold tofu,” but she has developed a taste for homemade vegan cheese.