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Love cheese, but not the fat and calories?

Cheese substitutes used to be rubbery and bland, but now some taste like the real thing. “Today” show’s food editor Phil Lempert shares his choices.

Cheese is one of my favorite foods — but even I have to admit that cheese contains fats, cholesterol, sugar (lactose), and is an allergen for some consumers. As a result, companies have introduced cheese substitutes made from grains, rice, or soybeans. All are good sources of complex carbohydrates and proteins. But typically they don't melt as well as natural cheese or have the same texture or flavor. Although most cheese alternatives have fat (usually from partially hydrogenated oil), they don't contain cholesterol. They’re also typically lower in calories, with a slice ranging from 22 to 90 calories.

Because soy, nut, and oils used in cheese substitutes have a light to liquid consistency, most products use potato flakes, potato starch, or cellulose to give the “cheese” a harder consistency and a texture similar to true cheese. Many soy cheese products also contain sodium casinate, and oils, particularly partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Some manufacturers are gradually phasing out these oils and using tofu, soy proteins and non-dairy lactic acid. Preservatives and sugars (conventional table sugar and maltodextrin) are also present in some brands. So, top line — read those ingredient labels carefully.

VarietiesImitation cheese: “Imitation” cheese looks like cheese and has a similar texture, but is usually made from partially hydrogenated oils. That could be a problem if you're concerned about your fat consumption.Soy cheese: Made from soybeans, these veggie cheese substitutes are lighter in texture than cheese, and they're difficult to use in dishes that require melting. But they make great additions to sandwiches or salads. Soy cheese is available in several varieties, including cream cheese (plain and flavored), cheddar, and mozzarella.Nut-based cheese: Almond and other nut milks are used to make some cheeses. But some are bland and have a slightly nutty sweetness.What I look for
• Low sodium• No or few additional sugars• Natural cheese taste• Ability to melt• No rubbery textureMy picks of the weekBest of the best: Soyco Rice ShredsTypically, as the grandson of a dairy farmer, I don’t like artificial cheese — but this shredded alternative is excellent. Made from brown rice, it is soy free, has half the fat of natural cheese, and is low in calories. And it melts better than other cheese alternatives. Soyco's mozzarella was the best tasting, but I found that the cheddar had a slight aftertaste. (soyco.com.au)

Best artificial cheeses: Galaxy Foods Veggie Slices, and Smart Beat
Galaxy Foods Veggie Slices are tasty, soy-based organic cheeses made with canola oil. They don't melt as well as natural cheeses, but they're good on salads and sandwiches. (galaxyfoods.com)

Smart Beat cheese alternatives are very good non-dairy, non-soy, fat-free, lactose-free products. They also melt well and taste good. However, they do contain casein, a protein found in milk. (smartbalance.com)Storage tips
As a reminder, store all cheese substitutes in the refrigerator and tightly reseal their containers between uses to preserve texture and flavor. Note the expiration date. For the best results, you want to eat these cheese substitutes promptly.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at
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