A: Alisa – This is a question and misconception I see often. In fact, this very concern has popped up from three different viewers in the past month alone, so I want to help clarify this issue.
On the contrary, I have yet to see a cheese alternative that is labeled as “vegan” that does contain casein or dairy in any form (and I have read a lot of cheesy ingredient statements!). The label vegan is an indication that there are no animal products in the product, and this includes dairy and its derivatives.
However, there is a valid reason for the consumer confusion …
Many brands of cheese alternatives are not actually vegan and dairy-free. These versions typically contain casein, otherwise known as milk protein. Some people wonder why a company would bother making a cheese alternative if it is going to contain dairy. Well, there are a couple of markets for these products. Though they do contain dairy, many of these brands are lactose-free and therefore suitable for those who are lactose intolerant. Also, some tout “health benefits” that certain consumers are seeking, such as cholesterol-free or high in soy protein.
To add to this confusion, the vegan versions and the non-vegan versions are typically sold right next to each other, and some are even made by the same company, so the packaging is quite similar.
For example, Galaxy Foods makes Rice Cheese (slices, blocks and shreds), but they have a “regular” line of rice cheese alternative that is simply labeled as “Rice” but contains casein as the second ingredient and another line of the same product labeled as “Rice Vegan” that is dairy-free (and therefore casein-free). The packages look very similar (see the images above), and are typically side-by-side in the refrigerated cheese alternative section, so as you can imagine, mix-ups ensue.
Two more brands (both from a company called Panos Brands) that are easily mistaken for one another are VeganRella (vegan and dairy-free) and TofuRella (not vegan, contains casein). They often sit side-by-side on the shelf and as you can see, the labels look quite similar …
There are many other brands to watch out for, but to make your life easy, get one of the No Dairy Product Lists. These are updated annually and contain thousands of products that are made without dairy ingredients (including vegan cheese alternatives).
Also, for more cheese alternative information, you can see my other posts that address the questions, “Why is it so difficult to find a good vegan hard cheese alternative?” and “Can you recommend a “good” vegan hard cheese alternative?”
As a reminder, always check the ingredient statement to make sure a product is free from dairy ingredients. It is never safe to rely exclusively on special labels. Also, if you are very allergic to dairy, make sure you check on the manufacturing processes. Some brands may either be made or packaged on shared lines with products that do contain dairy. This may up the risk for cross-contamination of food allergens.
Alisa Fleming is the founder of GoDairyFree.org and author of Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living. In addition to her own dairy-free lifestyle, Alisa has experience in catering to the needs of various special diets, including gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, vegan, and multiple food allergies.