Casein is the principal protein in milk. It’s found in the milk of all mammals, and, oddly enough, is often found in food items marked ‘non-dairy.’
While the term ‘non-dairy’ might mislead you into believing that the product in question is milk-free, it’s actually a term invented by the dairy industry to indicate less than 0.5 percent milk by weight.
Examples of ‘non-dairy’ products that contain casein are some coffee creamers, whipped toppings, and soy or rice cheeses. Casein helps non-dairy cheese melt. (It also makes it harder to wash the stuff off your dishes afterward.)
Most of the U.S. supply of casein is imported from countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, and certain European countries. On several dairy industry websites, it is made clear that casein is a highly profitable byproduct of dairy farming, making it essential for vegans to avoid casein wherever possible.
Casein appears in a number of places one would never expect to find it. As well as making its way into many foods that are far from vegan, it can also be used as an ingredient in mock meats, egg substitutes and even some brands of coconut milk powder. Casein even shows up in small amounts in some baby formulas (including some marked ‘hypo-allergenic’).
Casein is also one of six substances that may be used to clarify wine. (Egg white, gelatin and isinglass are others that are not vegan.) If you call the vintner, ask them if casein or any other animal products are used in the “fining process.” There are many wines available now that do not use any animal ingredients in their production.
Casein is also found in many cosmetics, hair preparations, beauty masks, and some pharmaceuticals. It can also find its way into adhesives/glues, paints, plastics, paper coatings, concrete and textile fabrics.
Some people point to the widespread use of casein as a reason that no one can be 100 percent vegan, leading them to the conclusion that there’s no point in scrutinizing ingredient labels too closely. Of course it’s true that animal products are used in so many ways that it is simply impossible to avoid all animal use. However, this does not mean that we should not do our absolute best to avoid these products when it is reasonable for us to do so, especially in light of the fact that casein is simply milk in another form. And milk production, as we all know, requires the abuse and killing of nonhuman animals in order to be profitable.
Casein is also the substance in cheese that makes people find it addictive. When casein is digested by humans, it breaks down into several chemicals, including casomorphine – an opioid peptide. Opiates hide inside casein, but as the molecules are digested, they break apart to release tiny opiate molecules with about one tenth the opiate strength of morphine. The addictive power of cheese in particular may be due to the fact that the process of cheese making removes water, lactose and whey proteins so that the casein is more concentrated.
Ever said to yourself or someone else ‘I could never give up cheese’? That’s the feeling the dairy industry counts on to sell its products of exploitation. But there’s good news: The cravings go away. All you need to do is decide for sure that you don’t want to be involved in the horrors of dairy production, and you’ll soon find that your feelings about cheese start to turn from delight to disgust.
And there’s even more good news! Not only are packaged vegan cheese alternatives becoming more readily available, but they’re getting better all the time. It’s far from being an essential ingredient in life, but it sure is a nice reward for kicking the dairy addiction.
Co-written with M Butterflies Katz