To make good cheese is to understand chemistry. Combine precise measurements of bacteria, salt, milk, and thickening agents at the right temperature and the mixture will congeal into a delicious mass. Miscalculations, however, can make a batch sour or clumpy or both. Take dairy out of the equation and the balance becomes even more fickle.

From her home kitchen in Guelph, Ontario, Morgan Mitchell—who has a degree in microbiology—spent months in 2012 trying to work out those ratios, experimenting with fermented quinoa and sauerkraut to culture plant milks. A health scare had pushed her to go vegan that year, and she’d been surprised by how many foods were easy to give up. She barely missed bacon, butter, or cow’s milk. But she couldn’t live without cheese.

Until fairly recently, most dairy-free alternatives looked and tasted like dried-out Play-Doh. Some of the earliest brands included the alluringly named Cheze-O-Soy, Vege-Chee (which came in a can), and TofuRella. Mitchell’s early attempts weren’t much better. One particularly bad batch turned into a festering white monstrosity resembling what she describes as a “sweaty diaper.” It tasted like salty cabbage that had been left out in the sun to rot.

Six months in, she finally landed on a creamy, smoky Irish white cheddar imitation—made from cashews, coconut oil, tapioca starch, seaweed, paprika, and a secret bacterial culture—with a texture indistinguishable from goat cheese. “It blew away my family, and when I took it to social events, people were really wowed by it,” she says. “When I nailed it, I felt like I really nailed it.”

Five years later, vegan cheeses—which mimic the taste and texture of the dairy version without using animal products—became Mitchell’s full-time pursuit. Her first commercial kitchen was housed in the meat locker of an old sausage factory (the irony doesn’t escape her). In November 2022, Green Goddess Fromagerie moved into a bigger, more central location near downtown Guelph. When I visited just before the shop’s grand reopening, the fridges were stocked with seventeen different cheeses, spreads, and dips, including herb and peppercorn “no-goat,” caramelized onion cheddar, garlic chive cream cheese, and even a vegan halloumi.

While vegan cheese hasn’t yet garnered the same sort of mainstream attention as the plant-based Beyond Burger or oat milk, its popularity is growing among plant-based eaters and omnivores alike. Vegan cheese boutiques are primed to be the new gluten-free bakeries, and they’ve popped up in cities across the country, from Okanagan Valley, BC, to Charlottetown, PEI. According to a report by Grand View Research, as of 2021, the global vegan cheese market was valued at about $2.4 billion (US) (approximately half of what the plant-based meat market is currently worth), and it is likely to climb by over 12 percent in the next decade. That’s largely due to a growing appetite for more sustainable foods—one study, for example, found that some cheese alternatives produce about half the CO2 emissions as compared to dairy versions. It likely also helps that most vegan cheese is becoming more palatable than its plasticky predecessors.

As a long-time lover of dairy cheese, I was once skeptical about the vegan version. But Mitchell’s cream cheese doppelganger spread across my cracker like buttercream, while the rosemary sharp cheddar cheeseball tasted nutty and delightfully dense. Perhaps most surprising was the grilled halloumi—the by-product of a gouda attempt gone wrong. It was perfectly salty with a subtle bite: the outside was lightly crispy, the inside soft and gooey.

“Would you know it’s not dairy?” Mitchell asks me. “No,” I reply. “I can’t taste the difference at all.”

Cheese, like penicillin or superglue, is thought to have been discovered by accident. One origin story has it that 4,000 years ago, an Arab merchant travelled across the desert with milk stored in a pouch made from sheep’s stomach. In the heat, enzymes in the stomach lining caused the milk to curdle, creating what one can imagine resembled modern-day cottage cheese.

This happy accident laid the framework for centuries of cheese making to come: from the aged, ripened blue cheeses first made in France during the seventh century to the stacks of fluorescent orange blocks in North American grocery stores today. And while the sheep’s stomach is no longer a prerequisite, the basic method isn’t far removed from the first draft.

The history of vegan cheese is not as well known, but it stretches back nearly a century. One of the early proponents was John Harvey Kellogg, a now-controversial doctor and nutritionist best known for popularizing breakfast cereal. In the mid-1930s, he created some of the first commercially available dairy-free cheese alternatives. His now-defunct Nuttose pâté, made from peanuts, was marketed primarily as a health food and was said to have the consistency of both brick cheese and cold roast mutton. While more alternatives have become available over the years, they lacked dairy’s signature ability to stretch and, crucially, melt. The few that could were made largely from oil and starch, tasting waxy and artificial.

Dairy cheese owes its texture and meltiness to casein, a protein found exclusively in animal milks. During digestion, it’s converted into casomorphins, which can attach to opiate receptors in the brain and release dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter associated with all of life’s most delectable things, including sex and chocolate. In 2017, Neal Barnard, founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, went as far as to call cheese “dairy crack” because of its addictive qualities. Without casein, vegan cheese, for many years, seemed destined for disappointment.

But a handful of companies have started to figure out how to replicate the most attractive qualities of casein. At Nobell Foods in San Francisco, founder Magi Richani—an engineer by training who is lactose intolerant—has spent the past seven years developing animal-free mozzarella that she says is meant to taste and behave the same as its dairy counterpart. Her company, which raised $75 million (US) in venture capital funding in 2021 and is hoping to soon launch its product in US supermarkets, is the first to figure out how to make casein from genetically modified soybeans. Soy is one of the most efficient crops to produce: it has a low cost and the most protein per acre. Yet nearly 80 percent of soy grown around the world is used to feed farmed animals. Richani believes that if more of it were used to feed people instead, that could help lower the carbon footprint attached to agriculture.

Unlike Mitchell’s products, which are put through a charcuterie board test, Nobell cheeses are meant to emulate the stuff in the dairy aisle—designed to be sprinkled on pizza or stirred into pasta. Just as almond, oat, and other dairy-free milks have become popular latte substitutes among non-vegans, Richani believes that her offerings could have mass appeal—not just because of their taste but also their price point. Consumers tend to prioritize flavour, cost, and convenience when purchasing food, she says, whereas health, environment, and animal welfare tend to be less important. “When I started this company, I wanted to hit those first three,” she says. To gain converts, “it’s easier to change how we make cheese than to change what people love about it.”

In 2021, Miyoko’s Creamery in north California—formerly headed by celebrity chef Miyoko Schinner, whom many consider the queen of vegan cheese—expanded its selection, with mass appeal in mind. While the company is best known for its artisan cashew cheeses, like smoked gouda and European truffle, its liquid vegan pizza mozzarella promises to melt, bubble, and brown just like the real thing and is widely available at regular grocery stores across the US and Canada. During the 2020 fiscal year, Miyoko’s Creamery was reported to have $20 million (US) in sales.

But while interest may be growing, plant-based varieties account for just over 3 percent of the global cheese market. Art Hill, a retired professor and an adjunct at the University of Guelph’s department of food and science who devoted much of his academic life to the science of cheese, suggests the lacklustre demand could partly be a question of exposure and marketing. Most of us are accustomed to dairy products. Since breast milk is the only food our species is biologically capable of producing, it’s often associated with motherhood and vitality, and that long-standing social imagery makes milk-based products more difficult to tamper with than, say, meat. In a paper published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, researchers from Oxford University wrote, “Milk marketing campaigns have repeatedly developed milk’s wholesome palatability through use of the nostalgic conception of the pastoral. These positive traits persist to this day in the advertising of dairy milk”—and, by extension, other milk products.

Hill, a lover of aged cheddar himself, suspects that there’s always going to be a demand for really good dairy cheese. While he hasn’t yet acquired a taste for vegan alternatives, he thinks they’re going to shape the industry in the long term. In some ways, they’re already starting to disrupt it.

Over the past five years, vegan companies have faced legal backlash over their use of the word “cheese” on their packaging. Canada’s current food regulations, which were created in 1979, state that cheese, to be labelled as such, must be made from milk, and milk, they claim, is “the normal lacteal secretion obtained from the mammary gland of an animal.” A similar law is in place in the EU, where cheese has long been part of the culture in countries like France and Belgium (though both have burgeoning “Fauxmage” movements). While these cases have been built around the argument that non-dairy cheese labels are misleading for consumers, Camille Labchuk, a Toronto-based animal rights lawyer, suspects they’re actually about protecting Canada’s $8 billion dairy industry. As an example, she points to the Margarine Reference, a former section of Canada’s Dairy Industry Act that prohibited the production and trade of margarine up until 1948 to give dairy products priority in the marketplace.

“The industry knows that dairy milk sales are declining drastically,” says Labchuk. (According to Statista, annual milk consumption in Canada hit a new low of around fifty-eight litres per capita in 2022—about a ten-litre decrease per capita since 2015. Meanwhile, Statistics Canada reported a 3.1 percent decrease in the sales of table milk—that which is bought for day-to-day consumption—between 2021 and 2022.) “We haven’t seen that same decline yet with cheese,” likely because there aren’t enough tasty alternatives that are widely available. But change is on the horizon, she says, “because dairy-free cheeses are getting better, and that’s when consumers start to make the switch.” Even Canada’s Food Guide eliminated dairy as a category in 2019 in favour of more plant-based foods, triggering an outpouring of concern from farmers across the country. Soon after the new guide was released, one dairy farmer from New Brunswick told the CBC he felt like cheese was being punished.

More recently, Montreal-based Rawesome Raw Vegan Inc. won a four-year court battle—believed to be one of the first of its kind in Canada—against the city over the naming of its cashew-based cream cheese. In 2021, a municipal court initially found the company guilty of violating the Regulations Respecting Food and Drugs by referring to a non-dairy spread as cheese, but Rawesome successfully appealed the decision on the basis of statutory interpretation. Cheese, the company’s lawyers argued, shouldn’t need to adhere to a single definition set out by food regulations. “This is a decision that sets a precedent,” Rawesome’s lawyer, Natalia Manole, told CTV News in September 2022. “Nobody has a monopoly on the word cheese.”

For the time being, vegan cheese makers in the rest of Canada aren’t exempt from the current labelling requirements. Rewriting the legal definition more broadly would be a step toward normalizing dairy-free alternatives. But the bigger question this case raises is more philosophical: What, exactly, makes cheese cheese?

It’s something I asked each person I spoke with for this story, and no two answers were the same. Hill insists that casein—specifically from dairy milk—is the defining characteristic of cheese, while Mitchell thinks what matters most is how you make it. “If it’s not cultured, it’s not cheese,” she says. But Richani’s stance perhaps best captures the current zeitgeist. “If you grew up in China drinking soy, that’s what milk is to you,” she says. Couldn’t the same be true of cheese? “We’ve made cheese for thousands of years from animals, but we also rode horses as our main form of transportation,” she says. “It doesn’t mean we have to do things that way forever.” 

Nicole Schmidt
Nicole Schmidt is a freelance writer, editor, and fact checker based in Berlin. She was previously an associate editor at The Walrus.
Joey Ng
Joey Ng is a Singaporean illustrator with a background in animation and design currently based near Toronto.