As a kid, my favorite part of the packed lunch I brought to school each day was a puck of Mini Babybel cheese. Unwrapping the translucent plastic covering to reveal the cheese’s vibrant red wax coating was an oddly tactile pleasure, and I relished the chance to pull its little paper tab and reveal the soft, creamy cheese inside.
So when Babybel announced it would debut a plant-based version of this iconic cheese in March, I had to try it. My observations: Babybel Plant-Based’s packaging is identical to that of the original Mini Babybel, except its characteristic plastic-and-wax covering is a shade of Kelly green rather than the traditional red. Inside, the vegan cheese looks remarkably like its traditional counterpart—white, creamy, and shaped like an adorable little wheel—but its smell leans a little synthetic, and its texture is drier and a tad crumbly. Overall, the taste is reminiscent of the Babybel I grew up loving... but with a subtle hint of plastic. Which is to say not bad, but not great. More like the first draft of something that could be truly special.
Still, the mere fact that a major brand like Babybel has waded into the plant-based cheese space made me wonder: Is a change in the way mainstream America thinks about plant-based alternatives afoot?
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It couldn’t come at a more important time. According to a 2018 study published in the journal Science, cheese outranks pork, farmed fish, and poultry in terms of harmful carbon dioxide production, creating 5.4 kilograms of it per 50 grams of protein. Plant-based cheese could help ease this figure down—if consumers embrace it.
How cheese went vegan
To understand the current vegan cheese market, we’ve first got to look back in time. The first vegan cheeses didn’t contain whey or casein, two proteins that give traditional cheeses their seemingly magical ability to stretch, melt, and smear. Instead, makers of these plant-based cheeses manipulated nuts, grains, oils, or starches to produce products that mimic those qualities.
This process has its origins in the early 20th century with something called “soy dairy.” It was developed by researcher and author Li Yu-ying, who studied soy at the Pasteur Institute and eventually founded the Tofu Manufacturing Co. In his work, Yu-ying took methods of fermenting tofu and used them to make vegan versions of Western cheeses like Gruyere and Camembert. Later, in the 1930s, soy-based cream cheeses hit the market, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that soy protein-based cheeses more similar in flavor and texture to traditional cheeses became widely available.
Vegan cheeses made without whey or casein are hardly out of fashion. Babybel’s new plant-based cheese falls into this category; it’s made with modified food starch and coconut oil. Products made by popular brands So Delicious and Follow Your Heart, two plant-based cheese brands owned by Danone North America, are also made without whey or casein and instead rely on coconut oil and potato starch.
A new kind of vegan cheese
A newer style of vegan cheese, however, uses fermentation to actually create casein and whey. Reminiscent of fermentation techniques being used in the plant-based meat space, these methods are revving up excitement for the future of plant-based cheese.
"The culturing organisms are actually giving the cheese quite a bit of flavor,” said food scientist Katie Kolpin-Gustafson, the principal scientist at Archer Daniels Midland, a multinational food processing corporation specializing in nutrition and agriculture.
She points to companies like Treeline, a new vegan cheese company that produces shredded cheese-like products in the style of mozzarella and cheddar and smooth products evocative of soft goat cheeses. According to the company’s website, it achieves these textures by grinding cashews and culturing them with a vegan probiotic culture called Lactobacillus acidophilus. The strain has long been used by traditional cheese and yogurt makers to convert sugar into lactic acid, which helps give cheese its characteristic tang.
"[Treeline] also uses aromatic flavors that come from plant-based sources to maybe mimic dairy cheese flavors," Kolpin-Gustafson added. The process, she said, results in a vegan cheese dramatically different—and more realistically cheese-like—from those that don't contain whey or casein. She isn’t associated with Treeline, but is nonetheless impressed by it and what its innovations might mean for other players in the vegan cheese space.
Treeline isn’t alone in the fermentation space. Miyoko’s Creamery, which was founded in 2014 and is one of the major players in fermented plant-based cheese today, uses this same technique to create various cashew-based cheeses and vegan mozzarella. So does Kite Hill, another vegan cheese company founded in 2008. It specializes in plant-based alternatives to yogurt, butter, and soft cheeses like ricotta.
But how realistic are these cheeses to their traditional counterparts? In some cases, very. Vertage, yet another vegan cheese outfit, similarly leverages cultures and fermentation to make a variety of nondairy cheeses. Its mozzarella in particular made a splash earlier this year, when it popped up in the vegan chicken Parm sandwich at Unregular Pizza in New York City.
“This version checked off all the boxes I wanted in this Italian-American sandwich,” wrote editor Bao Ong in Eater after trying the sandwich. He noted that “the Vertage cheese had that squeaky, QQ texture”—see our explainer on QQ—"that makes mozzarella so appealing.” Vertage’s cheeses are now available in more than 15 different restaurants in Washington D.C. and three in Los Angeles.
Vegan cheese blows up
Plant-based meat has widely recognized major players, like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, which are both nationally available in grocery stores and even grace some fast-food menus. There might not be a vegan cheese juggernaut on par with either company quite yet, but we could be seeing one soon: According to market research firm Grand View Research, the vegan cheese market is expected to grow at a rate of 12.6 percent annually from 2022 to 2030.
We’re already seeing a sea change. While Miyoko’s Creamery may not have the same name brand recognition as Impossible Foods or Beyond Meats, for example, it's currently available in a staggering 20,000 retailers across the country. Kite Hill is in Whole Foods, Target, Publix, Kroger, and other stores; it also received an $18 million investment from General Mills back in 2016. Boursin, most known for its spreadable cheese, released a creamy and herby dairy-free version this year made with starch and oil. Then there’s Babybel, of course.
With all these big names in the dairy world investing in the nondairy cheese world, it’s clear the plant-based version is becoming mainstream.
Even as fermentation heats up the vegan cheese space, limitations remain. “Melted cheese is sort of the bulk of cheese sales in America, [and] a lot of the existing offerings don't melt very well, [and] they certainly aren't able to age very well,” said Franklin Isacson, a founding partner at venture capitalist firm Coefficient Capital. As an early investor in Oatly, the popular oat milk brand, Isacson knows a good idea when he sees one. He’s currently in talks to invest in various vegan cheese brands, but believes the category still has a ways to go in terms of fine-tuning its products and finding an audience.
Food writer Alicia Kennedy, who has written extensively about plant-based diets and has a book on the cultural and culinary history of plant-based eating coming out in 2023, believes nondairy cheese brands have to present themselves in a different way.
“I don't believe omnivores will be swayed or converted by vegan cheeses that attempt to really do one-for-one mimicry of animal-based cheese,” she said. “It has to embrace that it is something else entirely, which is something plant-based milks have done to great success: Simply owning that they're made from almonds or soy or oat.”
Her two cents? Think of plant-based cheese as another option on the cheeseboard. You wouldn’t, for example, expect a pungent Stilton to behave like a nutty Parmesan. We shouldn’t expect plant-based cheese to behave like traditional cheeses.
With this in mind, maybe I shouldn’t have such high expectations of Babybel’s new plant-based cheese. Or, at the very least, perhaps I shouldn’t think of it as a plant-based replacement to something I love, but an entirely different sort of product altogether.
Still, experts are certainly excited by the possibilities on the vegan cheese front. Whether brands choose to actively mimic traditional cheeses or go in an altogether different and new direction, Kolpin-Gustafson believes that the products hitting the market now—including Babybel Plant-Based and others—are just the tip of the iceberg.
“The variety of plant proteins that are available today, the variety of starches, flavors, the fermentation processes making the proteins,” she summed up. “It's a massive world of opportunity.”