You learn a lot of crazy things in college, but I think the most shocking thing I've learned so far is that there are people in this world who eat cheese "alternatives." After laughing at the fact that my suite's fridge is almost always full of exclusively cheese, my roommate enlightened me one day on the existence of vegan cheese. I guess I should've known that vegan cheeses exist, but since I cannot imagine a life without regular cheese consumption, it was a foreign concept to me.
I did some research, but after discovering that vegan cheese includes ingredients that I've never heard of (like carrageenan and pea protein), I decided that it didn't sound all that appealing. Ultimately, however, my curiosity and love for cheese (that is, all types of cheese) trumped my apprehension, so I went ahead and bought four different types of vegan cheese to taste. I was interested to see how bad the vegan and lactose-intolerant communities really have it. Here's what I found:
I tried this vegan mozzarella cheese first, and it was pretty decent. I don't think I'd ever consider eating an entire block of it—even though my roomie and I have been known to do that with a block of sharp cheddar or a wedge of brie. That said, it did give me hope that I could survive without real cheese if I ever needed to.
The texture was way better than I was expecting, but it did seem a little closer to cheddar than fresh mozzarella. In terms of flavor, this cheese alternative was seriously lacking. Melted on a pizza, though, it could probably taste close enough to the real thing that most people wouldn't even know the difference—but on its own, I wouldn't recommend it. The verdict: this mozzarella wasn't great, but it definitely could've been worse.
For vegan cheese number two, I picked up Daiya Swiss Style Slices from a local grocery store. Despite a solid effort, this cheese was mostly terrible. It has a really strong smell (somewhat of plastic), and while it is flavorful, it is not swiss-like at all, so the taste conflicted strongly with my expectations. Swiss cheese is supposed to be soft and even a little bit elastic, but this alternative was just dry, and not in the good parmesan way. It crumbled like stale bread when I folded a slice in half.
I only tried this cheese raw, so maybe it would be more edible cooked in grilled cheese (like the photo on the package). To be safe, though, I would steer clear of this one.
This blend of shredded cheddar, mozzarella and jack cheese alternatives (like the above Trader Joe's vegan mozzarella) is just mediocre. The texture is respectable and close to the real deal, but again, the flavor is severely lacking.
But for shredded cheese, this alternative may just get the job done. You could melt it in a quesadilla or on a pizza, and it would likely resemble the regular cheese version. My dairy-free friends can rest easy knowing that there's at least one vegan option out there that a cheese lover can still enjoy.
This cheese alternative does not have any obscure ingredients, and it was definitely my favorite of the four. It doesn't taste exactly like real provolone, but the attempt was there and the flavor was actually pretty pleasant. The texture was great (read: no crumbling), and I would definitely recommend this one to vegans and dairy consumers alike.
Unsurprisingly, my ultimate conclusion is that real cheese surpasses vegan cheese exponentially in both texture and taste, so I will not be embarking on a vegan or lactose-free journey anytime soon. But at least now I can find comfort in knowing that if one day I wake up and can't handle the dairy, a couple of the soy-based alternatives will still do the trick.