As soon as I began writing this column in 2009, people started asking me where to find plant-based milk, cheese or ice cream. No one asks me that anymore. Instead, the question I now get is which vegan dairy products to buy. The abundance of options is overwhelming.

Last month, the New York Times ran a story about vegan milks under a headline asking “Have We Reached Peak Plant Milk?” Then it quickly answered its own question: “Not Even Close.” With pumpkin seed, tiger nut and – coming to U.S. grocery stores later this year – potato milk, the plant-based milk possibilities seemingly span the whole vegetable kingdom.

According to Julie Emmett, senior director of marketplace development for the Plant Based Food Association, there has been “considerable growth across the broad plant-based dairy category, including creamer, yogurt and cheese.” Plant milk is the largest category of vegan dairy products, making up 16 percent of all milk sales in 2021.

“The plant-based dairy category has really benefited from ingredient innovation, expanded placement in stores, and merchandising strategies that integrate plant-based alongside their conventional counterparts,” Emmett said.

On a recent Tuesday, this selection of vegan cheeses and butters was in columnist Avery Yale Kamila’s refrigerator. Photo by Avery Yale Kamila

In 1991, when I joined team vegan, the best-stocked grocery stores generally carried just one brand of vegan milk, Edensoy, and one vegan ice cream, Tofutti. And I thought that was a big deal. Aerosol-propelled vegan whipped cream didn’t exist, vegan butter meant vegetable oil margarine, and no one outside of hardcore health food circles had ever heard of soy yogurt or vegan parmesan. Today, all of these plant-based categories, and more, are experiencing tremendous product growth.

For example, within the past year, classic supermarket French cheese brands Boursin and Babybel (which typically sell in deli sections) each launched vegan versions. The spreadable Boursin “dairy-free” variety made its debut last fall, and Babybel, which first sold its red wax-covered mini cheese wheels in the 1970s, unveiled its “plant-based” (and green wax coated) cheese wheels in the United Kingdom this Veganuary. Babybel is due to launch the plant-based mini cheeses in the United States any day now (if it hasn’t already).

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Meanwhile, major U.S. vegan cheese brand Miyoko’s Creamery is getting ready to bring its Cultured Plant Milk Cottage Cheese to market later this year, and Milkadamia plans to soon sell single-serve vegan creamers to customers.

Somewhere out there, I think to myself as I’m contemplating vegan cheese and idly scrolling my food-heavy social media feed, there must be a cow’s milk dairy product that hasn’t been veganized. Next thing I know, I’m looking at a post from Monte’s Fine Foods in Portland heaping praise on Flora Professional Plant Cream. Monte’s, which churns out vegan baked goods in its Italian bakery at the intersection of Washington and Ocean avenues, gushed that the heavy cream “whips up beautifully and has the mouth feel and taste of dairy cream – you can also use it in any recipe (including baked goods) calling for heavy cream at a 1-1 ratio.” And just like that, I was reminded that I’m no longer living in the 1990s, and just about everything that can be made with cow’s milk has been made with plants.

Reports from the recent Natural Products Expo West trade show, which was held in Anaheim, California, in March, confirm the continued expansion of vegan dairy products. Many brands used the Expo West event as a launchpad for new plant milk offerings, including oat-based versions of condensed milk and canned whipping cream from Nature’s Charm, cheese spreads (including queso) from Melt Organic, feta blocks from Daiya, powdered vegan cheese sauce mixes from spice brand Simply Organic, vegan blue cheese and brie wedges from Nuts for Cheese, vegan ice cream sandwiches from GoodPop and vegan mochi ice cream from Buono.

The Plant Based Food Association held its most recent trade show in New York City in December, and new dairy products were on display everywhere. “There was plant-based soft-serve ice cream, ready-to-drink coffees and teas with plant-based milks, and such an amazing variety of butter and cheese that taste incredible,” Emmett said.

To witness the current vegan dairy tsunami, just walk into any local grocery store and you’ll find surprising numbers of vegan dairy products mingling with the cow’s milk versions. Shaw’s and Hannaford have long sold their own house brands of plant milks. Since Whole Foods Market opened its Portland store in 2007, it’s sold a range of plant milks under its house brand, and now its parent company, Amazon, has started selling its own brand of almond milk. In recent years, Whole Foods added a house line of vegan sliced and shredded cheeses, too.

Vegan ice cream flavors are taking over supermarket coolers and popping up at seasonal scoop shops across Maine, where hard serve and soft serve vegan ice creams are boosting the bottom lines of the businesses that offer them.

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Clearly, vegan dairy is everywhere. But the question remains: Which vegan dairy products do I recommend? Well, that’s complicated. I definitely have my favorites. However, if the pandemic has taught me anything, it is not to assume I can always find vegan milk or plant butter or dairy-free pizza cheese when I want it, let alone my preferred brand.

During the past two years, plant-based dairy products have suffered shortages as increased demand met supply chain issues. Pandemic shortages or not, I also know that for many of my friends and family in Maine, especially in rural areas, plant-based choices are fewer than in downtown Portland, where I live within walking distance of three health food stores. When I visit my Dad in Litchfield or my in-laws’ camp in Limington, local access to vegan dairy products shrinks dramatically. Depending on where I am and what’s available, my preferred products shift.

For instance, when my favorite milk is nowhere to be found, I have to prioritize. I prefer soy milk, since, along with pea protein milk, it has the highest protein levels, but I prioritize organic (since non-organic grains and beans in the United States are often dried using the controversial herbicide glyphosate). In my experience, it’s easiest to find almond and oat milk in organic versions.

Because I’ve lived so many years without it, vegan butter is not a necessity in my house, but a treat. (In fact, I find frozen and slightly thawed olive oil to be a lovely stand-in.) But these are the days of cultured, artisanal vegan butters, and I’ve surrendered to their creamy delights. Finding an organic, vegan cheese is tricky (and generally limited to the Miyoko’s Creamery brand), so when it comes to plant cheeses, I’m mainly looking for a short ingredient list.

Here, without further ado, are some of my favorite plant milk products.

MILK: Westsoy Organic Unsweetened Plain Soymilk

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I have a fast-growing vegan child in my home who loves milk, and this is my go-to brand. Soy and pea protein make the best plant milks for children because of their high protein content. Unlike many plant milk brands that add gums as thickeners, Westsoy contains no gums or fillers. In fact, the milk is made from just two ingredients: water and organic soybeans. The lack of added sugar and flavoring are also key to me. During the pandemic, I’ve had a few kitchen fails when I realized too late the plant milk I just added to my son’s mac and cheese sauce was vanilla flavored. Lately, Westsoy milks have become much more difficult to find because of supply chain issues, and if I can find it at all, often, fewer than half a dozen containers are left on the store shelf.

BUTTER: Miyoko’s Creamery European Style Cultured Vegan Butter Unsalted

Made from cultured cashew milk and coconut oil, this certified organic butter comes wrapped in paper inside a cardboard box like traditional butter. It possesses a rich, complex flavor reminiscent of cow’s milk butter, and spreads smoothly and melts well. Since I’m not a baker, I haven’t tested the package’s claim that it’s “crafted for baking,” but I hear from friends that it lives up to its word. So far, I’ve only found this butter for sale in health food stores, but I recently learned Target sells it, too. The company has a slight Maine connection, since founder Miyoko Schinner was one of the hosts of the PBS cooking show Vegan Mashup, which was filmed in cookbook author Toni Fiore’s Maine home.

SLICED CHEESE: Violife 100% Just Like Vegan Smoked Provolone Slices

A mild cheese with a smoky edge, these slices are delicious with vegan cold cut sandwiches or melted atop a plant-based burger. I occasionally use them to make myself a vegan Italian sandwich, but the real fan in my house is my non-vegan husband, who adds these (or Violife’s Cheddar slices) to most of the meals he makes. The cheese, made from coconut oil and food starch mixed with vitamin B12 and beta carotene, is mild enough for my 9-year-old to enjoy on a grilled cheese sandwich.

SHREDDED CHEESE: 365 Plant-Based Mozzarella-Style Cheese Alternative

I like this Whole Foods Market house brand of vegan mozzarella shreds, because it melts on pizza, has few ingredients, and is less pricey than many other shredded plant-based cheeses. Like the Violife sliced cheese, these shreds are made from coconut oil and food starch. I regularly use them on pizza and sometimes sprinkle them on tacos. The product is comparable to the excellent Violife and Daiya shreds, but when I’m blessed with options, I prefer it to those two because it costs less and tastes very similar.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. Reach her at [email protected]
Social media: AveryYaleKamila


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