Rice cheese is a cheese substitute or imitation cheese that is made from rice proteins. It’s almost always dairy-free, which can make it a good choice for people with dairy allergies or diets that prohibit the consumption of milk or other animal products. The product is usually available in slices, shredded, or in blocks, and is usually flavored to taste like a range of different cheese varieties, anything from cheddar to mozzarella and provolone. People who are used to eating dairy-based cheese may not immediately find the taste of rice alternatives appealing, and different brands do have slightly different takes on taste, texture, and presentation. In general these sorts of products melt evenly and slice consistently, but again not always. Their ingredients are almost always entirely vegetarian, though certain brands and formulations will use casein, which is a milk protein; some may also incorporate some soy-based ingredients, usually to improve texture. People who are really strict about their food consumption are usually wise to read the label closely before purchasing or eating this sort of product.
Turning rice into a product that looks like cheese isn’t usually an easy process. Manufacturers typically begin by grinding the rice into a fine powder, then isolating the proteins and pressing the residue into sheets. Rice bran and starch are usually also included, typically as binding agents. Vegetable oil and oil-based thickeners are usually also added to help improve texture, and food coloring and seasonings are incorporated as well to help it more closely resemble dairy cheese.
Rice-based products may look and taste like ordinary cheese, but they aren’t usually as nutritionally significant. They aren’t usually good sources of protein, for instance, and they don’t usually contain calcium unless it’s been added in as a supplement. Manufacturers sometimes artificially bolster their products to make them better sources of vitamins and minerals, but on their own, rice slices don’t usually carry much caloric or nutritional value.
Special Cautions for Allergy Sufferers
There are many reasons why a person might want to try rice cheese, but allergy sufferers are usually one of the target demographics. People who are allergic to dairy products or who are lactose intolerant can’t usually eat normal cheese. Many of the most popular cheese substitutes are made with a soy base, but soybean allergies are also fairly common. Those who suffer from both often find rice-based alternatives a happy compromise.
Not all rice cheeses are truly dairy-free, though, which can cause pause for many consumers. Many formulations contain casein, which is a milk protein. Casein acts a lot like gluten, which is found in wheat products, and is used as a binding agent to hold the rice and oils together. Even though it comes from milk, it is used in such small amounts that typically doesn't bother those with dairy allergies. It isn’t related to lactose, which is a separate protein structure, and as such products that contain casein can usually still be labeled lactose-free. They aren’t technically dairy free, though, which can be a big difference. People who are strictly vegan may still find this troubling, and those with extreme sensitivities may also find it to be too much.
How It’s Used
People usually use rice-based cheese products in the same ways that they would use standard cheese, with the possible exception of straight snacking; though rice cheese certainly can be eaten on its own, most people find that they like the taste a lot more when it’s blended in with other ingredients or flavors. It can be melted on pizzas, sprinkled on pastas and salads, or used on sandwiches; really just about anywhere that normal cheese could be used, the substitute could be, too.
Where to Find It
This variety of cheese is typically found in gourmet grocery stores, health shops, or specifically vegan and vegetarian-focused food stores. It is often stored in the refrigerated dairy section of these markets and comes in a variety of conventional flavors, including cheddar and mozzarella. The cheese is often sold in brick form for immediate cutting and consuming, but it can also be sold grated or formed into counted slices.