When checking ingredient labels, every vegan must keep an eye out for casein, a protein found exclusively in milk. Casein gives melted cheese its oozie stretchiness. Beyond its presence in most dairy products, casein sometimes appears in processed foods, protein powders, and even paints and adhesives.
Casein and Vegan Cheese
The stretchy qualities of dough and cheese both come from protein. Dough’s stretchiness comes a grain-based protein called gluten. Melted cheese gets its remarkable stretchiness from a milk-based protein called casein. For a long time, if you wanted to use plant-based ingredients to make cheese that properly melts, adding casein was the only way to do it.
Back in the bad old days, soy cheese companies often added casein to their products without disclosing it as a milk ingredient. This tricked quite a few vegans into eating the stuff. To this day, there are still some soy or almond-based cheeses on the market that contain casein. These products are neither dairy-free nor vegan, so you should always check the ingredients when you buy vegan cheese.
As food technology has advanced, vegan cheese companies have discovered plant-based ingredients that replicate casein’s meltability. There are now several great vegan cheeses on the market that have the same stretchiness as dairy-based cheese. See our vegan cheese page for a list of top brands, as well as advice for making your own dairy-free cheese.
Is Dairy-Free Casein Available?
Several companies and biohacking groups are at work figuring out how to mass produce vegan casein. As challenges go, this one is considerably easier than, say, making a good vegan sausage. That said, the market for vegan casein isn’t exactly huge, and this has slowed the pace of research and development.
Eventually you’ll also be able to buy soy and almond cheeses containing vegan casein at your local market. And you’ll also be able to hit Amazon.com and order bottles of vegan casein. But for now, you can’t purchase vegan casein anywhere. Keep your eye on a New Zealand company called New Culture, which is developing a non-dairy mozzarella that contains vegan casein.
Further reading: animal ingredients and vegan cheese guide.