I tried plant-based 'cheese' from a startup that claims it's the future of dairy

There are a wealth of vegan substitutes on the market for those of us who are either allergic or have ethical issues with the dairy industry.

Unfortunately, most of them taste terrible.

But what if you didn’t have to choose between ethical sourcing and taste?

Kite Hill is a Silicon Valley-based startup that makes plant-based “cheeses” and other products that it claims are healthy, good for the environment, and above all, taste good.

Founded by vegan celebrity chef Tal Ronnen, French cheesemaker Monte Casino, and Stanford biochemist Dr. Pat Brown, the startup is backed by venture capitalist firm Kholsa Ventures — which also invests in “Just Mayo” producer Hampton Creek and the online grocery service Instacart.

There’s a growing shift toward plant-based food, but one of the biggest obstacles is the lack of tasty options on the market, says Kite Hill CEO Matthew Sade.

“Kite Hill is trying to really offer, for the first time, great-tasting plant-based dairy products,” Sade told Business Insider.

I decided to try Kite Hill’s almond-milk-based “cheese” to see if it really is worth the hype. Here’s how it went:

Kite Hill makes a variety of products, including a 'soft fresh original' and a 'soft ripened' cheese-like product, a cream cheese-style spread, and yogurt. (Under FDA regulations, the company can't use the word 'cheese' in its products -- a problem Hampton Creek encountered with its eggless 'Just Mayo' mayonnaise alternative.)

Photo Courtesy of Kite Hill

Source: Kite Hill, Business Insider

Kite Hill isn't alone in their vegan cheese initiative. Lots of other plant-based cheeses exist, like the selection below. But while most vegan cheeses are made by basically blending whole ingredients like nuts or soybeans, Kite Hill's products are made from almond milk, using 'traditional techniques' involving microbial cultures and enzymes, Sade said.

And unlike dairy-based cheeses, which are usually made from cultures fed on dairy-based microbial food, Kite Hill uses all plant-based microbial food, according to Sade.

Photo Courtesy of Kite Hill

Source: Kite Hill, Vegetarian times, One Green Planet

This process enables them to make a variety of dairy products that taste more authentic. They even make a yummy-looking ricotta 'cheesecake.'

Photo Courtesy of Whole Foods Market (National Projects Photographer)

Kite Hill's products are sold at Whole Foods stores nationwide. I stopped by one close to our offices in Union Square, New York, and found them colorfully displayed in the cheese section.

Tanya Lewis/Business Insider

Whole Foods was also advertising Kite Hill's plant-based ricotta ravioli, but I decided to stick to the cheese product.

Tanya Lewis/Business Insider

I bought some of the 'soft fresh original.' At $9.99 a pop, it wasn't cheap, but still not unheard of for artisanal cheese.

Tanya Lewis/Business Insider

First: The nutrition. Each 80-calorie serving of the soft fresh original (about a quarter of the palm-sized container) has 7g of fat (though no unhealthy saturated or trans fat) and 3g of protein (a bit on the low side), but no calcium (a characteristic ingredient of dairy products that helps build strong bones).

Tanya Lewis/Business Insider

Sources: Kite Hill, Calorieking.com

For comparison, an 80-calorie serving of Cacique Ranchero queso fresco (like the one shown below) has 6g of fat (4g saturated), 6g of protein, and 150mg of calcium (a little over half what you'd get from drinking a cup of milk).

Now, onto the taste. Here's what the Kite Hill's product looked like right out of the package:

Tanya Lewis/Business Insider

When I sliced it up, the product had the look and consistency of raw tofu, and didn't smell like much.

Tanya Lewis/Business Insider

First, I tried it on its own.

Jessica Orwig/Business Insider

Then, I tried it with some crackers.

Jessica Orwig/Business Insider

The verdict: It tasted exactly like...salty tofu! It was definitely edible, but didn't really taste like cheese! (Though maybe their soft-ripened product is more cheese-like). While I might consider buying it for a snack, I don't think I'll stop buying dairy cheese anytime soon.

Getty Images/Neilson Barnard

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