What is “vegan cheese” (and why do people get so angry about it)?
What is vegan cheese?
Cheese has, for thousands of years, been made with milk from a mammal – usually a female cow, sheep or goat, (even buffalo).
Vegan “cheese” is made with ingredients that don’t include milk from a mammal or any other animal product.
It’s often packaged like cheese and borrows heavily from existing cheese branding, like camembert, cheddar and gorgonzola.
And it’s this borrowing/copying that is getting dairy’s goat.
The problem with the words “vegan” and “cheese”, together.
Discussions can get very heated over the words “vegan” and “cheese”. The EU has even banned the use of the word cheese on vegan products. It’s also banned descriptions on vegan products that claim to be similar to dairy of any kind, cheese, milk, butter and yoghurt included.
Never mind that the words vegan or plant based are plastered all over the packaging, it’s said to be confusing for consumers, who might miss all of the warnings and inadvertently eat a plant.
Now, if that plant happens to be a nut or soy or some other allergen, this can be potentially serious. So can drinking milk – an allergen present in all dairy.
But unusually, rather than leaving it to manufacturers to label their products correctly, (in line with already very strict legislation on allergens), the EU has decided that the word cheese (and milk, butter, yoghurt etc ) can only be used to refer to products of animal origin.
Is that fair?
Should we fight the ruling and have it overturned or should we just suck it up and move on – call it something else?
Where does the word cheese come from?
According to various sources online (I’ve included some links here), the English word for cheese derives from Germanic and Anglo Saxon words like cese and chasi, which were in turn derived from the Latin caseus (meaning cheese).
The old Norse words kaesa and kaesir (meaning rennet), the Spanish word queso, the Portuguese word queijo, the German word käse, Dutch word kaas all appear to descend from the Latin word caseus.
Fromage, on the other hand, is the French word for cheese.
Fromage, like formaggio (the Italian word for cheese) are thought to come from the other Latin word for cheese (introduced much later) – formaticum.
Surprise, surprise, formaticum however, comes from a combination of the old French word forme (form or shape) and the original Latin word for cheese, caseus.
The word caseus still isn’t the oldest word for cheese though. Caseus itself came from the word kwat, from an ancient common language thought to have been spoken across the whole of Europe and Asia around 5000 years ago.
So the common oldest origin of the words for what we, across Europe now know as cheese, is the word kwat and all modern translations of the word cheese seem to derive from the common root kwat.
Kwat simply means to sour or ferment. And some say that is enough to justify the existence of vegan cheese. It isn’t just about milk. It’s fermentation.
Others say, that was 5000 years ago.
5000 years later
5000 years is a long time in etymology to be fair. Hundreds of thousands of words exist today that didn’t exist 5000 years ago. We evolve and so do words. And the purpose of many words is to describe the everyday things in our modern and changing world.
Unsurprisingly, the word rocket wasn’t needed until the 17th century.
But what about cheese itself. That’s been around thousands of years, longer even than the word kwat.
What is it? What is cheese?
Is it a product of the core process of fermenting or souring anything and forming it into a shape?
Or is it the product of specifically fermenting milk and forming it into a shape?
Why did the Romans and French break out alone with their formaggio and fromage? Why did the Celts and the Saxons stick with Caws and Kase? What was gong on with the Spanish and Portuguese and their queso and queijo?
All those words came from one common source – kwat.
Yes, there are many, many different descendants of that word – but for a long time, thousands of years, they all derived along a similar looking/sounding root.
Then, along came formaticum. Did anyone get cheesed off about it all back then?
And now, we are at another fork in the road. We have thousands of varieties of cheese, can vegan not be among them? Well not in the EU apparently. Not yet anyway.
Where does all the anger come from?
Dairy is a massive industry. Many thousands of livelihoods depend on the consumption of milk, cheese, butter and yoghurt. People are bound to be alarmed at the growth in sales of alternative products.
There’s fundamental disagreement on what cheese is and how vegan cheese is being promoted.
For those who believe that cheese can only be made from milk, there is fury about what they see as vegan products often shamelessly copying dairy products, branding them with similar names and descriptions.
They point to the destruction of livelihoods for generations to come, on the pretext of combatting climate change whilst importing thousands of tons of almonds, cashews and coconut oil to make vegan alternatives at great profit and often to the detriment of animals (bees in the production of almond milk, monkeys in coconut oil).
On the other side of the argument, there are powerful arguments about animal welfare, the hidden impact on human health of dairy consumption (some would say deliberately hidden), the very real and indisputable impact of dairy on climate change and now, the emerging links between intensive farming more generally and the roots of this current pandemic and previous infectious diseases.
There is a sense that we need to change, to evolve. There are those that are resistant to that change and many others pushing for it.
And somehow the humble cheese finds itself itself time and again at the centre of this debate.
What’s in a name? Why not call it something else?
Well actually we already do.
Here at Herbie’s we saw the debate around vegan cheese and decided not to be distracted by it. We came up with our own names from the outset.
We sour our ingredients and press them into moulds. So we call our wheat based cheesy products, Sourpress.
Our Sourpress tastes like a crumbly cheese. We love the taste and the texture and we don’t mind if you think of it as vegan cheese or a vegan alternative to cheese. Just remember we call it Sourpress.
Our Melting Pot is named after melting potato – because we worked out how to make a potato look like it’s melting.
It’s light and creamy and melts on pizza and toasties and pasta. It’s a delicious vegan friendly alternative to cheese made out of oats and potatoes.
Despite the EU ruling, we think people will probably continue to say vegan cheese rather than “vegan alternative” to cheese. It describes what they see, which after all is something that looks like cheese and is vegan. And it’s less of a mouthful and actually less confusing than dairy free block or vegan wedge.
Habits and tastes evolve and the words that describe them do too. The term vegan cheese is out there and the demand for the product is growing fast.
Vegan cheese isn’t just for vegans. It is for anyone who can’t eat dairy – and there are hundreds of thousands of people in the UK who can’t.
Cheese is more than the sum of its parts. Cheese isn’t just sour milk curdled.
Cheese is pizza and pasta, toastie, quesadilla and crackers.
Cheese is something you grate and slice, cut into chunks, nibble, spread, drizzle with balasamic vinegar, melt, blend and bake. It’s a quick snack, a light lunch, a cozy night in with a bottle of wine and fine crackers. It’s a gift, a dinner party accessory. It’s indulgent and addictive.
Why shouldn’t everyone have some of that?
Cheese can be vegetarian and lactose free. It can be soft, creamy, semi firm, hard, blue, stinky, moldy, processed, pasteurised and unpasteurised.
Cheese can be made from cow’s milk, ewe’s milk, goat’s milk and even buffalo milk.
And one day on supermarket shelves across the EU you might yet get to see vegan cheese made from cashews, soy, almonds, wheat, potato or oats.