It’s sometimes hard to imagine what a vegan world might look like, given our dependence on animals for all sorts of uses. Convincing people to simply eat more beans and rice, and wear cotton and hemp will be a big part of it. But so might innovations for products and processes we can’t even imagine.
One of those innovations in the works is for Real Vegan Cheese, using the milk protein casein but without the input of a cow. It boggles the mind (or at least my mind) but biotech researchers are working on it right now in labs in Oakland and Sunnyvale, California.
If it works, the casein will be manufactured from plain old baker’s yeast and it will be completely vegan. (It will also be GMO-free.)
For those who “could never give up cheese,” (we all know plenty of those people, right?) it removes that considerable barrier to going vegan. Likewise, for those ex-vegans who insist that they need animal protein, here is their animal protein—but without the animal.
It sounds pretty good to me. But, in every discussion I’ve read about Real Vegan Cheese a concern about casein comes up. Isn’t casein a carcinogen? Why would we want to produce a food that contains such a deadly compound?
The idea that casein causes cancer comes from animal studies in which rats were fed large amounts of isolated casein. Not milk or cheese, just isolated casein. And they were rats. Research in rats hasn’t always served nutrition knowledge very well. For example, the old way of assessing protein quality of foods relied on the PER—protein efficiency ratio—which assessed effects of different proteins on growth of rats. The problem was that rats have different amino acid requirements from humans. Because of those rat studies, nutritionists underestimated the value of plant proteins for decades.
So animal research doesn’t always answer questions about human health very well. Neither do studies that look at isolated compounds. The CARET study is one example of this. It found that beta-carotene and vitamin E supplements raised cancer risk in the subjects. But no one would suggest that we shouldn’t eat foods, like spinach, carrots and sweet potatoes that are rich in beta-carotene.
There are, of course, some compelling epidemiologic studies that have looked at whole dairy foods and have found a link between these foods and prostate cancer. But, those studies show that excessive dairy or calcium intakes may raise cancer risk. The recommendation coming out of that research from the Harvard researchers and others has not been to avoid dairy; it’s been to limit dairy consumption to one to two servings per day.
It’s hard—if you are going to be honest, evidence-based, and unbiased—to make a case again moderate dairy consumption. And, as it turns out, it may actually not be in our best interests—or the best interests of the animals—for us to try to make that case. It’s possible that efforts to portray all animal foods as deadly to human health will leave us with fewer options for helping animals. Because, if vegans believe that casein causes cancer, they are less likely to support a product—like Real Vegan Cheese—that can help more people go vegan and save millions of animals.
I’m certainly not an authority on Real Vegan Cheese, and I realize that there might be some good arguments against it. I’m only saying that if there are concerns about ideas and products that have the potential to help animals, they should be based on real nutrition science.
Because a vegan world is a world where animals are not exploited. It’s not necessarily a 100% plant-based world. And while you and I may be content to eat a diet of mostly or exclusively whole plant foods, we need to be smart enough—for the sake of the animals—to realize that everybody else isn’t just like us. If the solutions that work for us—like Daiya cheese and cashew cream—don’t work for them, we need to find something that does.