Somehow, that does not sound particularly appetizing – plant milks – yet according to Gourmet News magazine there is a growing market for plant-based milks. Per-capita consumption of cow’s milk has been falling. I am okay with that. The article calls almond milk “the new white milk,” while soy milk is still ahead in popularity. According to Packaged Facts publisher David Sprinkle, consumers choose plant-based dairy alternatives for numerous reasons: either they are vegans, vegetarians and people concerned about antibiotics and growth hormones often found in cow’s milk, lactose intolerance, milk allergy, and the genetic disorder phenylketonuria.
Fortunately, phenylketonuria is extremely rare, though serious. Sufferers are advised to severely limit their consumption of several foods including meat, chicken, fish, eggs, nuts, cheese, legumes, milk and other dairy products, as well as starchy foods, such as potatoes, bread, pasta, and corn. Limiting one’s consumption of all those foods alone makes the genetic disorder a very serious one. It is important to note that these foods do not cause phenylketonuria, but that these protein-rich foods must be avoided if one is diagnosed with this disorder.
If avoiding milk because you are vegan, there is no point in recommending cheese instead. However, if one is vegetarian, the milk is acceptable (depending on one’s definition of vegetarian) as well as most cheeses. The cheeses that would not be acceptable for vegetarians would be those that are produced with traditional animal rennet – a coagulant that is used less and less often. Avoidance of milk because of lactose intolerance makes sense. That intolerance is not a problem caused by aged cheeses. The younger fresh cheeses have very little lactose themselves, compared to milk. For persons avoiding dairy products due to concerns about the use of antibiotics and growth hormones, the use of those hormones is entirely avoided in milk destined for cheese making, and if an animal is on antibiotics, that animal is not headed to the milking parlor. Milk containing antibiotics does not make successful cheese. If the person’s resistance to dairy products is because of a milk allergy, that person might try skipping cow milk and cow milk cheese (the bulk of dairy products) as the occasional low tolerance to cow milk may be the problem.
In the meantime, while milk consumption falls, the consumption of cheese continues to rise.
A question came up recently; actually this question comes up almost daily:
“Is it okay to eat cheese when you are pregnant”?
The short answer is: Yes, same as it is for everyone else, except that it is not only okay; it is imperative that you eat cheese when you are pregnant.
The questions are frequently centered on raw milk cheeses.
“Which cheeses should I avoid while I am pregnant”? The underlying question is which ones are made from unpasteurized milk?
We do not advise you to ignore your obstetrician of course, yet as I mentioned in a recent post: cheese is not taught in medical school. Obstetricians should certainly know a lot about nutrition, and I am certain that most of them do. My fear is that some of the diet guidelines recommended may be based on incomplete or imprecise science.
One of the pitfalls I encounter with the assumption that pregnant women should only eat pasteurized cheeses is that this gives a false sense of security, as though pasteurization is an absolute, that the cheese is squeaky clean so there should be no concern whatsoever.
I have been asked these questions hundreds of times so I wanted to get to the bottom of it. I also happen to be a parent.
Part of the problem with this issue is one of nomenclature. To hear that a cheese is made with raw milk sounds a bit sinister. The “raw” word is associated with things that are unclean: raw sewage, or for the more puritanical in us, raw sex. This is why I prefer to call the cheeses made with unpasteurized milk (which also suggests “unclean”) as uncompromised cheeses.
Besides diminished aroma and flavors, cheeses that are crafted from pasteurized milk have altered textures; more importantly: some of their nutritional values are reduced, especially the fat-soluble vitamins and some of the minerals chelated to denatured proteins, denatured by the heat of pasteurization.
The premise of pasteurization is that it eliminates the bad bugs, which it does, to an extent. It kills most of the bad bugs in milk, but it also kills a large population of the “good” bugs. For anyone that does not realize that we are surrounded by good and bad bugs (that an entire civilization of each kind resides in our alimentary canal) they should know that it is okay not to know this because we can count on those “good” bugs; they outnumber the “bad” ones. If it were the other way around we would not be here. Bad bugs can be more serious when they have their brethren around; in other words, they fight like bullies.
Yet we want to know that the environment where the fetus is growing is clean, and that the mother is providing “clean” nutrients all along. Of course we don’t want the mother to consume foods that are riddled with pathogens: harmful to the fetus and potentially harmful to the mother too. Expectant mothers have been consuming raw milk cheese for millennia. Of the rare cheese contamination problems, the majority of those few problems have occurred with the pasteurized varieties. It is important to remember this: that cheese continues to enjoy an excellent track record for food safety, far safer than fruits and vegetables, safer than most of the foods we find in our grocery stores. Sad. Yet in a way, this is good for cheese.
Again, pasteurization does eliminate most of the pathogens that get into milk. Rarely are these pathogens present in the dairy animal’s milk to begin with. The contamination, when it does occur, happens post-production, regardless of whether or not the milk used in the cheese production has been pasteurized. The relative importance and strength of the good bugs should be preserved, for their presence should be better able to defend the cheese from pathogenic contamination. Without those lines of defense, the pasteurized cheeses are more susceptible and potentially more inviting to contamination.
The serious pathogen a mother should be concerned with is listeria monocytogenes. This particularly tenacious bacterium can cause miscarriages and meningitis in newborns. However it should be pointed out that the incidences of contamination in cheese are few and far between. Food borne illnesses attributed to cheese are far fewer than those derived from other foods. Fewer illnesses have been caused by cheese than have been caused by bread and baked goods, by fruits and vegetables, by eggs and egg dishes, by multiple-ingredient foods, by juices and other beverages, by poultry, pork, beef, and far fewer have been attributed to cheese than have been caused by seafood.
So what should the expectant mother include in her diet?
Cheese supplies all those nutrients that the fetus and the mother require, including the best source of bio-available calcium, all of those nutrients except for vitamin C and fiber. If any doubts remain regarding which types of cheese to avoid, I recommend that the mother avoid the softer cheeses. The softer cheeses with their higher water contents are more hospitable to listeria monocytogenes. Stick to the drier cheeses.
It is a pity that cheese is not a subject taught in medical school. Several physician friends tell me that nutrition itself receives little attention. We would like to hear our medical professionals expound the advice of Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, who said “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.”
Most cheese we know today is so far removed from that primordial life-sustaining mammalian milk that it should be no surprise that a group of physicians in upstate New York is targeting dairy as a cause for America’s burgeoning obesity problems. They have correctly noted that the per capita cheese consumption has tripled since the 1970’s. Concomitantly a growing rise in obesity has occurred, yet these two trends are not directly related. The causes of obesity are not linked to the effects of consumption of dairy products. Some of the larger culprits in this weight gain are not the types that most people suspect: whole milk and full-fat cheeses. Instead, a significant part of the blame rests with the low-fat and skim-milk dairy products, and their depleted weight-reducing qualities.
The Albany area Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) has launched a graphic billboard campaign depicting grossly oversized abdomens and thighs, warning that cheese contributes to high obesity rates and poses health risks. The group has gone so far as to write the Albany school board asking the city to cut down on dairy products served in schools to help students reduce the risk of childhood obesity.
PCRM President, Dr. Neal Barnard, said in a news release “Typical cheeses are 70% fat,” which is blatantly untrue. The only cheeses that reach that level are the triple crèmes, which happen to have their own excellent weight-reducing qualities. Further he claims “…the type of fat they hold is mainly saturated fat — the kind that increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes.” It is embarrassing that our physicians are so terribly misinformed. Suffice it to say, many of today’s western medicine practices are treating symptoms instead of recommending effective dietary prevention methods.
The president of The New York Farm Bureau quickly pointed out that Dr. Neal Barnard who heads up this group is in fact a psychiatrist, and not a dietitian.
Regardless, even among dieticians there appears to be more cheese phobia than cheese appreciation. For the many that do accept dairy, the low-fat varieties are the ones that are usually recommended. These low-fat products may be some of the biggest shams the food industry has ever thrust on mankind. It is increasingly being recognized that it is not the fat itself that puts the pounds on, it is the consumption of excess calories that go unexpended. Calories can be derived from protein (which cheese contains) carbohydrates, as well as fat. It is too simplistic, as well as inaccurate, to say that fat that is consumed will automatically go to your abdomen or thighs. In otherwise healthy people our digestive systems have grand plans for the utilization of fats; the systems are not straight-shot conveyor belts to our waist lines.
Fat actually curbs our appetites by triggering the release of cholecystokinin, a hormone that yields a feeling of satiety, and one that is directly involved in the metabolysis of proteins and fats. Other hunger suppressors found in cheese include certain peptides and their amino acids. Many of the proteins (including their building-block peptides and amino acids), as well as many of the vitamins and minerals that cheese contain, all help to metabolize the foods we consume. After all, cheese is preserved milk – our first and only food for the first several weeks or months of our lives. This is one of the fundamental reasons why cheese can help us reduce weight if we choose to; it is a near-complete food which (except for vitamin C and fiber) provides all the nutrients we require.
Speaking of fat, the higher fat cheeses provide more conjugated linoleic acid, the valuable fatty acid. CLA has been shown to be an effective weight reducer in multiple studies. This fatty acid (which happens to be a beneficial trans-fat) is a by-product of lypolysis – the breakdown of the fats. Fat slows the release of sugar into our bloodstream, reducing the amount that can be stored as fat. Our LDL cholesterol levels can be raised by dairy consumption, however there is more than one kind of LDL and dairy fat affects only the benign kind.
Cheese is such a near-complete food (especially the high-fat cheeses) that we can reach satiety long before we have consumed excess calories, calories which in turn lead to weight gain if not expended.
The low-fat dairy products contain additives which are high in dangerous oxidized cholesterol which can form arterial plaque. The pasteurized low-fat dairy products are nutritionally depleted through protein denaturing and the elimination of significant levels of fat-soluble vitamins; just to list a couple of the losses.
In 2005, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health studied the weight and milk comsumption of children. Contrary to their hypothesis, skim and 1% milks were associated with weight gain, but dairy fat was not.
Cheese does not claim to be a “perfect” food but there is no more complete food available to us. Cheese also continues to enjoy an excellent track record for food safety, safer than fruits and vegetables.
To the PCRM group I say: “Find some other food to pick on. Cheese production offers the only viable enterprise remaining for the family farm. Cheese has suffered enough.”
“So, how are your cholesterol levels”? This is the second most FAQ I am asked, right after “If you eat so much cheese why aren’t you fat”?
I have my cholesterol levels checked periodically, just to make sure they are fine. In the meantime I eat a lot of cheese. I estimate that I consume more than twice the national average – more than one pound per week. A recent check of my cholesterol levels came in great: 91 HDL and 61 LDL. Those enviable levels are partly attributable to good genes but the extra cheese does not appear to be hurting.
Cheese Cleared of Cholesterol Charges is an article published recently by Vital Choices Newsletter; it appears to be a well-written and well-researched report. I agree with its premise: cheese should not be blamed for dangerous cholesterol levels. I have seen and heard convincing evidence throughout my cheese career supporting that belief. The assumption that elevated cholesterol levels (of the LDL, “bad” cholesterols especially) leads to cardiovascular disease is not supported by credible research indicating cause and effect, not that cheese has the propensity to raise cholesterol levels, good or bad. As the article points out, there appears to be scant correlation between cholesterol levels and heart disease.
It is interesting that some of the highest per capita cheese consuming countries happen to have some of the lowest incidences of CVD. Of course there are other compounding parameters at play yet it would appear to be simplistic, if not inaccurate, to assume that eating more cheese will cause heart attacks. Instead, more blame for cardiovascular diseases can be attributed to inflammations, many of which are reduced with the fats derived from dairy.
Fine cheese offers several benefits, pleasure among them: curbing the appetite, anti-oxidant properties, metabolism of fats and proteins, a full complement of amino acids for our overall well-being, and many others. It is no wonder cheese is gaining a following among health professionals, and then consequently from insightful media outlets.
Think of cheese as tasty medicine and not as a guilty pleasure. Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, stated it clearly over twenty four centuries ago “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
When planning a party that includes cheese the host must ask these questions: How many ounces per person? How many different cheeses? How much cheese to buy?
If other food is served three ounces of cheese per person should be sufficient. I recommend serving no fewer than three cheeses. If cheese is the main food you might increase that to 6 ounces total, and a minimum of 5 cheeses. I admit that I believe more is better yet a pretty good rule of thumb is to allow one pound each of the cheeses for every sixteen persons, about one ounce each. For the harder cheeses this is more than enough, for the softer cheeses or for the cheeses with thicker rinds that is about perfect.
Why the difference?
The softer cheeses have higher water content so people tend to eat bigger portions of those than they do of the firmer varieties. If the cheese has a thick rind that is not itself tasty you should factor that in. This applies to many aged and blue cheeses. Cheeses with rinds, wax coatings, leaf-wraps, and/or higher water contents should be scaled up a bit.
If you want to be a little more precise you might cut back a little on the harder cheeses, perhaps one pound for every twenty persons, and keep the others at about one pound for every sixteen. I have heard many people say “I can eat a ton of cheese.” I doubt that. Maybe a couple of tons in one’s lifetime is more realistic. If you consider that our per capita consumption in the U.S. is steadily rising to around 35 pounds each year, a ton of cheese should be easy enough. I sense that New Yorkers are doing their part to help raise that consumption.
Not to be gluttonous but to recognize cheese as a near-perfect food that enjoys a stellar track record for food safety, I believe we should all eat a little more of it, but only what I will call “real” cheese. On the other hand it is good to know that a little bit of cheese goes a long way, especially the harder cheeses. A cheese that costs over $30.00 per pound may seem high but one pound of a firm cheese can last for several days. I recently purchased a half pound of one of our new cheeses – the Stella Royale – and I expect that I will continue to nibble on it for several more days. A pound of this cheese is only $15.00!
We have some very soft and luxurious Quesos de la Serena in our caves now. I purchased an entire wheel of one yesterday. This one costs $21.50 per pound but it is worth every little dollop. I could not resist it; believe I ate nearly a pound of it last night! This cheese might be more appropriate for a special occasion with at least six people attending but when you see one this nice it should not be missed. The special occasion was having one in such marvelous form (as they usually are this time of year).
We usually serve the equivalent of about 6 ounces cheeses total in our classes here, which may not sound like much. Many people finish their entire selection but others opt to take a little home with them. This is after the opening receptions where several other cheeses and delicious fondue is served. Between the reception cheeses and those that are on the class plates, one could easily eat nearly a pound of find “real” cheeses in two hours. It can be done! Having all these outstanding cheeses within easy reach is one reason the New York per capita consumption is so high. Imagine a per capita consumption of 365 pounds each year! I am doing my part.
A post on Vegetarian Blues has me in fits. An old article from the Orlando Sentinel is quoted:
Of all the potentially addicting foods, cheese may be the most complex. In research studies using vegan and vegetarian diets to control cholesterol or reduce body weight, most participants soon forget the lure of ice cream, sour cream, and even burgers and chicken. But for many people, the taste for cheese lingers on and on. Yes, 70 percent of its calories may come from waist-augmenting fat, and, ounce for ounce, it may harbor more cholesterol than a steak. But that cheese habit is tough to break.
Give me a break! Yes, cheese has addictive properties but I am fully certain that the consumption of cheese is a good addiction to have, and for many reasons. It is interesting to note that the first two foods cited as easy to â€œforget the lure ofâ€¦â€ are also dairy products: ice cream and sour cream. The lure of dairy is always present, the primordial food that milk is in its many forms.
One of the biggest reasons why it is so difficult to give up on cheese is that our bodies know a good food when it eats it. Those addictive opioid peptides found in cheese actually help control our food intake. They also play a role in motivation, emotion, and the response to stress and pain. If a food delivers a lot of nutrition while helping to control our appetite then a little additional motivation and alleviation of pain should be permitted.
The article goes on to say that the cheese industry is looking for those Americans who will eat it straight out of the package, whatever the cost to their waistlines or cholesterol levels. It fails to mention a number of cheese components that can help you to slim down. Along with those appetite-controlling opioid peptides there is the satiety factor to be considered. Cheese (being a near-complete food) tends to satisfy us so that we do not crave excess amounts of food, cheese included. A little bit of cheese goes a long way.
A misconception I often hear is that it is the fat itself which makes us put on weight. More accurately it is instead the excess calories we consume but do not expend. Of course you can derive calories from fat, but you can also derive calories from protein and carbohydrates. The fat that is found in cheese not only makes the cheese taste good, it also helps to satisfy our cravings. That fat also breaks down into some mighty important fatty acids such as conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA. Multiple studies of the type of CLA found in dairy products have shown that it helps to reduce our weight; some studies indicate that a diet that contains this fatty acid can reduce abdominal fat! Another benefit of CLA is that it decreases whole-body glucose uptake. This is what we want.
There are several other good qualities of this addictive food. Cheese is an excellent source of the amino acid which suppresses our appetites and helps to reduce body fat â€“ tyrosine. Other amino acids, vitamins and minerals that are derived from cheese help to lower our cholesterol levels and control our appetites, and to metabolize the fats and proteins that we do consume.
The cheese industry does not claim that cheese is perfect but given a choice of foods there is no other that matches the complete nutrition that cheese provides, and there is no other food with a better track record for food safety. Cheese is derived from our first food â€“ milk â€“ our first and only food for the first several weeks or months our lives. Unfortunately, what in many cases passes for cheese is so far removed from our first food that it is no wonder that cheese has been repeatedly and viciously maligned. Yet even those processed cheeses are still better foods for us than most any other, and a safer food too.
By the way, my cholesterol levels are amazing and I am quite slim. My HDL is 163 and my LDL is 64, not bad for someone my age. Good genes donâ€™t hurt but the 100 pounds of cheese that I eat each year does not seem to be hurting either.