Bummer: Blackbird’s Vegan Pizza Isn’t Better for You

Why the dairy-free slices aren't health food

Last week, right before Thanksgiving, two of my very dear friends, Mike and Jenny, spent a few days in Philly before heading on to their final holiday destination in State College. Mike and Jenny are both writers (which made me like them almost instantly when my boyfriend introduced us a few years ago), smart and funny. They are also vegan, which is why I found myself chatting up my foodie friend Laila the night before they arrived about Philly’s vegan restaurants.

“Blackbird is supposed to be good,” Laila told me, referring to the recently opened all-vegan pizzeria on South 6th Street, as she, very Mary Poppins-like, pulled a menu from her purse. “They use Daiya cheese.” Daiya, we discovered after huddling over her iPhone, was a new, dairy-free cheese clone.

It melts! It stretches! It’s going to change the world!

At least, that’s what the Web said, and what I had in mind less than 12 hours later standing at Blackbird’s counter, eyeing the faux cheese slice.

As a girl who regularly eats tempeh, buys soy meat occasionally, did a two-year vegetarian stint in high school (but switched back after becoming iron deficient), and who now tries to only buy grass-fed, free-range, organic animal products, I was happy to give the cheese slice a try. It looked pretty close to regular cheese, smelled vaguely similar and, besides, I figured, it’s probably better for me anyway.

My opinion still held a few bites in, and Jenny and Mike loved it.  “This place is great,” Jenny said around mouthfuls of dough and Daiya. “Wish we had one back in Iowa.”

But then, a few minutes after finishing my slice, my stomach didn’t feel so great, and I began to wonder … Just what was Daiya made of?

“It’s flour and oil,” the lanky, longhaired guy behind the counter told me.

Um, yuck.

Perhaps that’s what vegans think when they hear the word “milk,” but, to me, the idea of topping dough with nothing but more carbs and fat made me feel slightly ill.

So, I did some online sleuthing. The first five ingredients in Daiya’s mozza cheese are filtered water, tapioca and/or arrowroot flours, and canola, safflower and coconut oils. Per 1/4 cup it has 90 calories, 6 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, 7 grams of carbs, 1 gram of fiber and 1 gram of protein. It doesn’t have any cholesterol, but it also doesn’t have any bone-friendly calcium, either.

On the flip side, the USDA nutrient database reports that, per 1/4 cup, part-skim mozzarella has 72 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, 2.8 grams of saturated fat, 7 grams of carbs, 0 grams of fiber and 6.8 grams of protein. It does have 18 milligrams of cholesterol, but it also has 222 milligrams of calcium. Whole-milk mozzarella has 84 calories, 22 milligrams of cholesterol and about a gram more of saturated fat than the part-skim variety.

Put those stats side-by-side and it’s clear there isn’t much of a benefit to eating Daiya over regular, low-fat cheese, except for any ethical reasons one might have.

Granted, pizza isn’t health food any way you slice it, vegan or otherwise, and I’m sure nearly all vegans are aware that just because something is vegan it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good for you. But as a non-vegan stepping into the vegan world for a slice, I found it frustrating that vegan cheese wasn’t any better for me than regular, and I’m sure my annoyance would only be compounded if I were an ethical vegan who missed eating dairy.

Though I think Daiya and Blackbird pizza is great for the occasional cheesy treat for those ethically opposed to real dairy or anyone who is lactose intolerant, it definitely shouldn’t be thought of as a lower-calorie alternative. When I decide to enjoy a slice of pizza, I think I’ll stick to the real thing.

Except, of course, when Mike and Jenny are in town.

What do you think Be Wellers? Have you tried Blackbird and/or Daiya cheese? And vegans: What are the healthiest things to eat on a vegan diet and what foods should be avoided? Is it hard not to reach for unhealthy faux meat and dairy products or staying at a healthy weight on a vegan diet? Tell us in the comments below!