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In a more familiar setting, casein is often found in protein supplements such as bars, drinks, and powders. It is known for a slow release of protein due to the clot it forms in the stomach and intestine when ingested in high volumes.
Casein is also responsible for coagulation during butter and cheese making, providing structure to the delicious end products. This binding and structural support is the key issue here. The casein molecule is very similar to the gluten molecule in structure – one of the many reasons they work so well together in baked goods.
This similarity, however, can cause havoc for some individuals with Celiac. Ingesting casein will often cause a reaction similar to ingesting gluten as the body cannot tell the two proteins apart, for a very simple explanation. This is not just for newly diagnosed patients with a healing small intestine either, as many lifelong Celiac patients cannot tolerate casein.
So now that the why part of the question is out of the way, we can get down to what the hell we’re going to do about eating without casein.
Substitutes and Pinch Hitters
Dairy products from all animals fall into one of three categories: cheese, milk, and butter, and all dairy products have casein in them including skim milks and 0% milks. Many products that are marketed as “dairy-free” will contain high levels of casein as they put additional quantities in their products to enhance flavor and texture.
Those of us following a casein-free diet are on the hunt for reliable replacements for these items to make our food tasty and our life easier.
First, let’s talk about casein-free cheese…
Casein is found in mammal milk, so consequently all cheese – which is made from mammal milk – is out of the question on a casein-free diet. There are a few substitutes available for this dilemma, however. Daiya, a casein-free cheese, is a relative newcomer to the game and seems to have staked out a place to stay in the last five years or so. I’m happy with that as their products are gooey, melty, pure deliciousness. They are also a splurge at upwards of $6.00 per bag of shredded cheese that covers just one family meal.
Beyond fake cheese products, using other ingredients to mimic the umami flavor that many cheese and dairy products provide is a good way to satisfy any cravings. Nutritional yeast is a traditional substitute for vegans and vegetarians in pseudo-cheese sauces and popcorn toppings. I find it fairly cheap in the bulk section at my local grocery store and use anywhere from a couple tablespoons to cover popcorn to 1/3 cup in soups or stews.
|My butter and milk of choice|
For everyday use I turn to plain, unsweetened soy milk. We use it for coffee in the morning, cooking in the evening, and cookie-dunking before bed. If you are able to purchase good quality soy milk then do so – it will usually taste better than the store brand available.
Beyond soy, many people use almond or rice milk. Hemp milk also works well in most recipes. Mass marketing has allowed many of these niche markets to develop and no longer will you find the dull, chalky consistency of the 1990s.
Normal butter derived from cow’s milk is also chalk full of casein, making it another ingredient we need a substitute for. I know what folks say about margarine and hydrogenated oils, so when I was no longer able to use my beloved butter I was a bit heartbroken.
Olive oil is the natural choice we can turn to here. It’s a great substitute in cakes and brownies, but not so great for pie crusts or biscuits. When I really want a flaky crust or want to give my potato soup a more satisfying, home-cooking flavor I opt for Earth Balance Original Spread. It has no hydrogenated oils, it is vegan, gluten free, and has no casein. I use it all the time and enjoy it on pancakes, in pie crusts, biscuits, and toasted sandwiches.
A Glimmer of Hope?
There is one true dairy product I know of that is, in theory, casein-free. However, this comes with a huge warning about cross contamination, so proceed with caution.
Ghee is going to be the only true dairy product those following a casein-free diet will be able to tolerate. However, even this comes with a risk of containing casein as ghee is made by removing the solidified milk proteins and residual proteins is a possibility for the finished product.
I hope this has cleared up a few questions you might have had. I know I was pretty disappointed when I finally realized the full extent of the casein in the average diet. It gets easier, as all things do, with time, so keep up the dedication and browse around here for some casein-free recipes and meal ideas.