Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why Vegans Don't Eat Cheese

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone told me they could probably give up meat, but they don't think they could live without cheese.  This statement is often followed by a question about what's wrong with eating cheese.  It's not like you have to kill the cow to make cheese, is it?

While it's true that you don't have to kill that particular cow, cows do die so that we can have cheese.  But that's not the only reason vegans don't eat cheese.  Here are three concerns that may have caused your vegan friends and relatives to give up dairy products.

Concern for the Animals

Maybe I'm a little slow, but it took me awhile to figure out why dairy cows produce milk.  As it turns out, they produce milk for the same reason other mammals produce milk -- to feed their offspring.  Dairy cows are mother cows whose calves were probably taken away from them at birth so that all the milk the mother produces can be turned into dairy products for humans.  So what happens to all those baby cows?  It depends.  If they're female calves, they may grow up to be dairy cows just like their mothers.  But if they're male calves, they are likely to turn into veal. 

Several years ago, animal rights activists were able to convince thousands of meat eaters to give up veal by exposing the inhumane way that veal calves were treated -- taken away from their mothers right after they were born, packed into tiny crates to prevent them from using their muscles, thus ensuring that their meat would stay tender, and then sent to factory slaughterhouses to end their miserable little lives. 

Many soft-hearted people who were repulsed by this practice and stopped eating veal, however, didn't make the connection that the huge demand for cheese and other dairy products necessarily increases the supply of veal calves.  Although new laws were passed to make conditions marginally better for veal calves, I still have a hard time justifying the idea that a cheese pizza for me results in a short, unhappy life for a baby cow.    

Concern for the Environment

Dairy farming has become a huge industry, and it negatively impacts our environment.  Everyone by now has had a good laugh over the issue of whether global warming has been exacerbated by cows passing gas.  I don't know if that's true or not.  What I do know is that all of those cows produce millions of pounds of cow poop, which ends up in rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water, killing the fish and other organisms and compromising our drinking water supply.  While small amounts of manure make good fertilizer, it's impossible to safely process all the manure produced by dairy cattle in this country.  The manure ends up in cesspools that may breed disease, pollute our groundwater supplies, and endanger the health and lives of dairy farm workers. 

Concern for Our Health

So, let's just say you happen to find a small family farm where the milk of a well-treated dairy cow is used not just for human consumption, but to nurture her calves as well.  Let's say those calves are allowed to graze in the pasture and live long and happy lives until they die of natural causes, and they produce only as much waste as can be used to fertilize the crops grown on the farm.  Is there any other reason to give up cheese?

Only if you care about your health.  Cheese and other dairy products contain large amounts of cholesterol, sodium, and saturated fat, which can contribute to numerous health problems, including heart disease.  In fact, Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says that cheese is the number one source of saturated fat in the American diet.  And low-fat and nonfat cheeses have nutritional challenges of their own.  According to Dr. Barnard, the most abundant nutrient in nonfat milk is lactose sugar.  Many non-vegans think that cheese and other dairy products are necessary sources of protein and calcium, but there are many vegan foods that provide protein and calcium in a more healthful way than cheese and other dairy products do.

Vegans have decided that, as far as they're concerned, the drawbacks of eating cheese greatly overshadow any perceived nutritional benefits.  More information about the effects of cheese and other dairy products on our health is available at


RunningForWitness said...

Wow, this was eye-opening, Pam - thank you - I think. :( Cheese has been one of my very favorite indulgences - that, and chocolate milk after a long run... but I don't think I'll ever be able to indulge in either now without thinking of a sweet little calve being taken away from its mother! Suggested alternatives? Vegan cheese (what's it made of again?) and soy milk? MOOchas Gracias!

Pam said...

I know -- I used to love cheese too, and I haven't found any vegan cheeses I like. Well, there's Tofutti Better Than Cream Cheese, but the version that tastes good is made with partially hydrogenated soybean oil and isn't good for you at all (I still eat it on my bagels, though).

There are all kinds of vegan chocolate milks -- soy, almond, or rice -- so you may want to try them all to see which one you like the best.

Does anyone else have any vegan cheeses to recommend?

Daniela said...

I tried one vegan cheese that was terrible, but I like Daiya mozzarella on pizza. Still have to explore more!

Pam said...

I know what you mean, Daniela -- it's a challenge to find good vegan cheese! I'm obsessed with the vegan grilled cheese sandwich that one local restaurant, Shine, makes using Daiya jalapeno garlic havarti.

Steve Patrick said...

This is a fantastic vegan cheese, if you want to make it yourself.

Steve Patrick said...

Pam said...

Looks good, Steve -- thanks for the suggestion!

Anonymous said...


Courtney Bella said...

Treeline cashew cheese

Courtney Bella said...

Treeline cashew cheese

Pam said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Courtney -- I'll check it out!

Drea said...

I love Chao cheese right now. The Follow Your Heart Mozzarella is tasty on pizza. As far as a chocolate milk alternative, after a long run I drink the Zico Chocolate Coconut Water. It is so delicious. I actually prefer it to any of the soy or almond chocolate milks.

Pam said...

Those all sound like good alternatives, Drea. Thanks for the suggestions!

Anonymous said...

A long time ago, (when I was young), I worked in east Asia, and then traveled through south and central Asia. I stayed in Nepal for several months, in India for several months,and in many other countries and cultures as I traveled overland to Europe. At that time--and things may have changed since--I found that milk drinking and the eating of milk products was uncommon in east Asian. However, both were important in the cuisines and eating habits of central Asian countries. In Nepal and India, where cows and similar animals (like water buffaloes) are sacred, their milk, nevertheless, is highly prized. It's used in tea and coffee, in yogurt and other cheeses, and in candies. In other words, the people may be vegetarians, but they are not vegan. Westward, from Pakistan, Afghanistan to Iran and Turkey, the milk of goats and sheep is cooked. In India, (unless you have your own cow), milk products are not cheap.
It is my opinion that the problem with animal milk products in America is that they are neither produced nor eaten in limited moderation. The industrial production style began the problem. Then, people were encouraged (by advertising and government campaigns) to indulge in milk and milk products excessively and not really in normal way. And this continues.
On the other hand, I think that many negativities can be found in non-dairy cheese. Take cashew cheese, for example. I know from experience what a natural cashew growing on its fruit looks like. The fruit upon which -one- cashew sits looks like a tomato or a persimmon. The crafters who make cashew cheese have to import thousands of pounds of cashews from some faraway country. In that country, new cashew farms must have been established in a quantity previous unknown. What other plants were destroyed to make way for the lucrative cashews? How has this affected the local people? How does it affect the indigenous land?
As for soy cheese, there are ingredients in most of it that I wouldn't want to ingest. People in east Asia have eaten soy for thousands of years, and have created many different kinds of products, including tofu, tempeh, sheets and noodles, frozen dried and in some ways, cultured. But they never made what is known as "Cheese" from soy. I tend to trust their wisdom.
I read ingredients on labels of pre-made food, and I'll pass on items that are too far from natural.
I prefer to buy and eat cheese from my local farmers, whose animals I can even visit if I want to. And eat in moderation.

Pam said...

Thanks for sharing your perspective. Food ethics are complicated, and there are many issues about which reasonable minds may differ. You've certainly piqued my interest about where all the cashews are coming from! I'll have to look into that a little more.

Barb said...

Hi Pam,
Have you had a chance to find out more about cashews?
Unfortunately, a case can be made against coconut too--water, milk, cream. The current fad in that, to be ingested as is or to be made into vegan products, must necessarily have caused a tremendous increase in coconut tree farms in east Asia. Is that for the better or for the worse? Ecologically? For people? (Most of the products aren't grown organically.)
Over hundreds, thousands of years, people have neither grown nor consumed coconut in such quantity. Again, there's the tendency for Americans to overdue it, even if it's a good thing.
By the way, coconut is also grown in Mexico, but only once have I seen a jar of the creamed meat with a Mexican origin. So shipping all that coconut from east Asia isn't particularly environmentally friendly.
Eating locally as much as possible seems to me to make more sense.