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World Vegan Day: How to go dairy-free

As a new vegan, you've heard you should no longer eat any dairy. What does that even mean, and how do you go about cutting dairy products out of your diet? Learn some tips in this article by sub-editor Kathy Bosman who lives diary-free.

NOVEMBER 1 every year is World Vegan Day where vegans all over the world celebrate no longer eating any animal-based products, which include meat, eggs and dairy.

Whether you have chosen to go vegan for your health, for the environment or for the animals, one thing that you need to get used to is no longer eating any dairy.

What exactly is dairy? Well, dairy is anything derived from mostly cow’s milk, but it can apply to goat’s milk or any other animal milk that is consumed. So, that includes things like milk, yoghurt, cheese, soft cheeses like cream cheese and cottage cheese, whipped cream, custard, butter, most margarines (as they contain milk solids or butter fat) and ghee. It also includes things like whey powder, casein (the milk protein) and lactose (the milk sugar) which are added to a lot of processed foods like cereals, soups and sauces, chips, chocolates, sweets and even some ‘supposed’ non-dairy milks and powders. You can also find lactose in some medicines and probiotics. But don’t live in fear – just keep yourself informed. It all depends on how strict a vegan you want to be.

Also read: World Vegan Day: Significance, history and how to get involved!

Being a new vegan can come with its challenges no matter how passionate you are about making this change in your life, so learning how to go dairy-free and all the ins and outs of it can be really helpful.

Here are the steps to going dairy-free:

1. The first thing you need to do is cut out all cheese, milk and butter. It’s recommended that you don’t eat/drink plant-based/vegan cheese and milk straight away as the taste is quite different and can be unpleasant if you’re used to dairy cheese and milk. Dairy cheese has certain properties that light up the pleasure signals in our brains, and it also melts really well – something hard to find in plant-based/vegan cheeses. If you start eating them straight away, you will struggle with the transition process. With cheese, it’s best to wait at least three weeks, or some say even six months, but that may be hard. With milk, you could maybe start after about a week.

2. Learn to read food product labels. Look for the ingredients list on the label and look for milk or any standard milk products. But there are also other hidden dairy words that you need to look out for. For example, sodium caseinate, calcium caseinate, demineralised whey, whey protein hydrolysate, lactoferrin, lactose and lactulose. I found this list and the website a great resource: If you have a severe allergy to dairy products, you will need to check for cross-contamination, too, but that is enough for another article. You can find plenty of information on the Go Dairy Free website on that side of things.

Also read: Sunday spoil: Vegan plum sponge cake

3. Transition to plant-based fats and butters. You can’t use ghee, margarine and normal butter anymore, but there is a decent range of dairy-free plant-based margarines on the market in SA now. Ola makes one and Flora makes two – their Flora margarine spread in the green tub and their Flora plant butter. I’ve also seen cashew-nut-cream-based margarines from companies like Irene’s Gourmet. If you have an allergy, you’ll need to check for cross-contamination. I can only eat the Flora plant butter. The plant butter is useful as you can use it in baking and cooking, too.

3. Find ways to cook without dairy. Instead of just looking for substitutes, you can find ways to cook differently. And there are some great alternatives which aren’t straight-out substitutes. For example, nutritional yeast, which has a delicious umami flavour and is great for sprinkling on top of, for example, a pasta dish and baking in the oven to give it a crispy, savoury, ‘cheesy’ flavour. Plus, it’s really good for you. Pizza can be made without any cheese topping. You can add lots of delish veggies, like peppadews, onions, red peppers, mushrooms and olives. Then just sprinkle olive oil and nutritional yeast on top and bake in the oven. It won’t take long before you are in love with a cheese-less pizza, and you may not even want any plant-based/vegan cheese on top – which don’t usually melt that great anyway. Other alternatives are things like cashew cream – where you blend cashews into a creamy sauce and add it to pasta or rice dishes. Using a tomatoey or vegetable-gravy-type sauce instead of dairy sauces can be a great substitute, too. There are many recipes available online, and the Go Dairy Free website and book have plenty.

3. Find a milk substitute that you like the taste of. Be willing to try them all as long as you don’t have a nut allergy. There are so many to choose from: almond milk, oat milk, macadamia-nut milk, coconut milk, soy milk and rice milk – I’ve even seen tiger-nut milk – I’m not sure what that is. It takes time to find the one that you enjoy in your tea or coffee and cereal or other dishes like custard or milky puddings. If you want whipped cream, the best substitute is a can of coconut cream. Store it in the fridge for about 24 hours and then whip it up in your mixer.

Also read: Biodegradable beauty: Why it’s important

Your tastes may change over the years. I prefer soy milk nowadays – also because it’s the most nutritious of the dairy-free milks, but I used to prefer coconut milk. Soy and oat seem to have the most neutral tastes for savoury dishes like pasta or creamy rice dishes. Just make sure to get the unsweetened ones. Try to settle with one that is more affordable and accessible. For example, tiger-nut milk isn’t found in most shops, so you will struggle to get hold of it. The more popular milks, like almond and soy, are easier to find.

4. Now that you’ve become more used to living dairy-free, you can try out some plant-based cheeses. I don’t use them often, but they can be nice in a toasted sandwich or a baked savoury dish. There are also some dairy-free ice cream products out there. I love the Virtue brand which is made out of coconut milk, but there’s also a brand at Pick ‘n Pay that is great, too. And you can make your own!

5. Find vegan restaurants to patronise. If you go to a non-vegan restaurant, but they promise they have dairy-free products, you may need to check with your server for the exact ingredients in the food as sometimes these promises are false – the staff may be ignorant. For example, ask if they cook with butter or oil. A lot of waiters/waitresses don’t even know what dairy is, and you may need to explain things to them. If you’re out with family or friends and go to a standard restaurant and everything has cheese, I’ve found that the safest thing to order is a large plate of French fries – I’ve never encountered dairy on them. Sometimes, you have to make do. Hopefully, the number of vegan restaurants will increase in SA. Thai food restaurants are also great as they don’t cook with dairy. And they have meat-free and egg-free options.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t get this right straight away. It takes time to transition and find a way of living dairy-free that works for you. I’m so glad I went dairy-free about three years ago. I feel so much better. Yes, it was hard in the beginning, but now, I’m used to it. The only time I struggle is when I eat out or visit people. Sometimes, you have to take your own food.

Great resources I use are: Go Dairy Free and the YouTube channel, Make it Dairy Free.

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