An Alternative View: A Look At Vegan Cheese
Non-dairy beverage alternatives have risen in popularity in recent years. Sales of nut and plant milks grew by 9% in 2018 and brought in $1.6 billion, according to the Plant Based Foods Association. In addition, sales of other non-dairy alternatives hit $727 million last year, a growth rate of 19.8%.
To gain greater insight into what makes the manufacturers of non-dairy products successful, we chose to interview the owner of one of those companies, Miyoko Schinner. She is an award-winning vegan celebrity chef and the CEO and founder of Miyoko’s, a company that specializes in the creation of vegan cheese, butter and cream cheese.
Below are a few questions we asked of Schinner and her direct responses.
MILK: What was the driver behind starting your company?
Schinner: I’ve been in food for a long time and, as a vegan, cheese was always one of my downfalls. So I was just determined at some point in my life to come up with cheese that was made from plants so I could enjoy what others enjoy. And not fake food. It was important to me as a value proposition to produce a new type of dairy product from whole, organic plants.
M: How do you make cheese from plants?
S: We start with whole plants. Right now we primarily work with cashews. We make milk out of the cashews and then we inoculate with dairy cultures. It’s very much like traditional cheese making, we’re just using plant ingredients. And we’re transitioning out of cashews to ingredients like potatoes and legumes and seeds.
M: Do you consider your cheese an artisanal cheese?
S: Initially the products that we made were definitely artisanal. And the reason for that was I priced it to be in line with other artisanal products. I wanted to show that vegan cheese wasn’t a laughable thing. I wanted to prove that you could make something that you can put on a cheese platter at a party with a glass of wine.
M: How do your products fit into the sustainability discussion?
S: My issue, like many other people in this industry, is that we have to figure out how we’re going to feed 10 billion people by 2050. Obviously our current methods of food production aren’t sustainable. To make milk you need to grow crops like corn and soy that are cycled through cows and calorie for calorie you’re putting up to 35 calories per cow to get one calorie into a human. So it’s a very inefficient process of food production.
Also, the crops that we use are easily grown locally in the United States. We are all very interested in carbon footprint and water and land use. We’re actually having a life cycle analysis done on our products right now as they exist, but we had a preliminary one done earlier. And we discovered that on one acre of land, you can grow enough cashews to make 6,000 pounds of cheese annually. Using rotational grazing for cows on one acre of land, it produces enough milk to make about 182 pounds of cheese.
To make our cheese doesn’t require very much water at all, because the cashews don’t require any irrigation. They only grow in tropical climates where it’s just rainfall, so there’s no water inputs whatsoever. So from a land use and water use perspective, it’s very sustainable
This is an issue that I’ve been struggling with for many years. And this is one of the reasons I chose to adopt a plant based diet. But the fact remains that people still like to eat these foods. So how can we how can we rethink this food? How can we reimagine it in a way that is sustainable so we can make a lot more of it? For example on one acre of land you can grow 55,000 pounds of potatoes. That would make a lot of cheese.
M: Why are consumers drawn to non-dairy products?
S: I think some of the reasons that I spoke about with the environment. You know, there is this thing called climate change. And people are becoming aware and realizing that there’s a potential personal responsibility and there is more than just recycling and buying an electric car that you can do to reduce your personal carbon footprint. So people are beginning to see plant-based foods as being a more sustainable option.
M: Can dairy and non-dairy products coexist?
S: People aren’t totally jumping on the vegan bandwagon. They are saying, well let me incorporate plant based products once or twice a week. A recent study showed that 50% of families are now incorporating plant based products regularly into their diet. I think it has something to do with flavor and sustainability, animal welfare.
I want to have that conversation with farmers and milk processors. Maybe there’s a better way? Why not partner and work together? Why not see this direction not as an attack, or causing the demise of the dairy industry, but as an opportunity for the dairy industry to transition something else that has a huge upside.
M: What is your viewpoint on the topic of using dairy names with non-dairy products?
S: Studies and surveys done with the public show that consumers are not confused by names such as almond milk. When you think about it, terms like coconut milk, milk of magnesia, cocoa butter have been around for a very long time and no one really took an issue with it. Until these things became a potential threat I don’t think anyone really cared.
But I would say that the dairy industry is divided on this. Some of the largest players in the dairy industry are not in opposition.
The tides are shifting, there is going to be at time when we’re no longer the alternative. We’re not going to be dairy alternatives, we’re going to be plant dairy. So why don’t we come up with a way to name it so there is no confusion. The confusion now is even worse because every plant-based company is calling their product by a different name.
When I started the company 4 ½ years ago I avoided all those words. I did not have cheese anywhere on the packaging, I called it cultured nut product. It made no sense whatsoever. So it is a reality that we’ve got to come face to face with. Why don’t we just have a conversation and figure out where the middle ground is rather than attack each other?
M: When it comes down to business, are you trying to take market share from dairy products or create a category of your own?
S: We’re trying to build a category of our own. Milk sales were already going down, so you can’t really blame the surge in the rise of plant based products on that. Change always happens when something new comes along. Was the car trying to replace the horse and buggy or just trying to create its own category?
What do you think? We’d like to hear your viewpoint on the commentary offered by Miyoko Schinner and the non-dairy product category in general. Send me an email at email@example.com.
For more articles about the ongoing debate around the labeling of non-dairy alternatives, see these articles: