Switzerland’s vegan food industry is in full ferment

We Swiss love our nearly 500 varieties of cheese – we’re regularly fifth or sixth for per capita consumption in Europe. The rest of the world does, too. Michael Spycher, a cheesemaker from Fritzenhaus in Emmental, just won the World Championship Cheese Contest in the US – for the fourth time (itself a world record). But there’s a new rising cheese star in Switzerland. And their cheese is made from cashews.

While an estimated less than 1% of Swiss are vegans, vegan cheese is starting to make an impact at home and abroad, thanks to growing companies like New Roots Vegan Creamery, based in Oberdiessbach, near Zurich. Founded in 2015, the company has been profitable since year one, and its vegan camembert and fondue, made of cashew milk fermented and aged in the spirit of traditional Swiss cheese making, can be found on the shelves of supermarket giants Coop and Migros.

Their vegan cheese comes with a strong environmental message. They are openly critical of the dairy industry and make it clear that no animals are exploited in the making of their products. Even though their own raw materials come from far beyond the Alps, according to the New Roots, cashews produce nearly three times less CO2 and use 40% less water than local milk. And the company works with fair trade specialists to make sure the cashews are ethically sourced.

And they’re already thinking beyond cashews. Ever innovative, their ambition is to make an expanded range of products using more local plant-based raw materials. New Roots recently won first place at the Swiss Vegan Awards for their vegan raclette, made principally from chickpeas and lupins.

While New Roots is a pioneer in some sense, you could say Switzerland has old roots in plant-forward diets going back more than 100 years. Nudist vegetarian reformers gathered at Monte Verita, in Ticino, at the turn of the last century, and according to Guinness World Records, Haus Hiltl in Zurich is the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world.

In carrying on this plant-based Swiss traditions in a new, higher-tech century, New Roots is not alone. Planted is another Swiss success story. Founded in 2019 as a foodtech spin-off from the ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the company sells its vegan meat chicken, burgers, and now even a “fermented steak”. And its bratwurst is available as vegan currywurst, one of Germany’s “favourite fast-food dishes”, for rail passengers on the Deutsche Bahn.

Of course, vegan food products are not without their critics. Over the past few years, in Switzerland, Europe, and America, there have been battles to protect words like “milk”, “cheese”, “meat” and “burgers” against what’s viewed as encroachment by non-animal-based substitutes. In most cases, the traditional meat and dairy industries have lost.

For the young plant-based startups, claiming words we once associated exclusively with animal products is an important weapon in the fight to, if not completely change minds, then at least open them to the possibility of non-animal substitutes for the foods they love. Their target market includes not just strict vegans but also flexitarians wanting to reduce their consumption of meat or dairy, or people (in the case of cheese) who are lactose intolerant.

While Switzerland is justifiably recognized in international competitions and the popular imagination for its strong dairy cheese traditions, the world may soon be making more room on their plate for another Swiss tradition, the plant-based diet.