No Salt? No Fat? No, Thank You! After spending a week at the annual American Cheese Society conference held in Raleigh, North Carolina this year, I was greeted on Monday with a flurry of postings and commentary in response to Henry Fountain’s article in the Science section of The New York Times. The article describes the failed attempts of the cheese industry to create low-sodium, low-fat cheese that will appeal to consumers. As the article itself admits, “It has not had great success.”
But what’s so puzzling about Fountain’s article is that it states that the cheese industry is “under pressure to reduce sodium and saturated fats in American diets.” It goes on to specify that what the cheese industry refers to as “American type” (e.g. Cheddar) and “Italian type” (e.g. mozzarella, Parmesan) cheeses account for about four-fifths of the more than 10 billion pounds of cheese made in the U.S. each year. Therefore, if you can reduce salt and fat in these cheeses, it could have a significant impact on the health of Americans. Then it explains why processed cheeses are especially problematic: “A typical slice of American cheese can contain more than twice the sodium that the same amount of natural Cheddar has.”
It’s so much simpler than it seems: If you want to reduce your salt and fat intake without compromising on flavor, then stop eating processed cheese and eat natural cheese instead.
In a recent article entitled In Defense of Cheese and Salt, Neville McNaughton, President of Cheez Source, states: “Processed foods frequently contain salt or sugar (sometimes lactose) in amounts higher than in the natural product.” As demonstrated in Neville’s graph, he points out that many natural cheeses contain only a fraction of the salt levels of many processed products derived from that very same cheese.
But what about the fat? There have been many conflicting reports about whether fat is good for you or bad for you, and I believe there is no clear answer. Some nutritionists say that full-fat cheeses are more filling and actually help people eat less overall throughout the day. There are studies that show eating cheese does not have a great effect on LDL (bad cholesterol). Regardless of whether real cheese or processed cheese has more fat, the fact that real cheese has little to no sugar may be more significant.
On the drive home from Raleigh, I heard a very interesting interview on the podcast Here’s The Thing by Alec Baldwin. He was speaking with Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco. According to Dr. Lustig, it is the addiction to sugar that is actually causing an obesity pandemic in the U.S. His research found that high levels of insulin cause people to always be hungry and lethargic. When given medication to block the production of insulin, his patients not only ate less, they exercised more and became more active.
He first discovered the link between high levels of insulin and obesity in patients who had had brain tumors that killed the part of their brain that normally received the hormone Leptin. Leptin lets the brain know when you have eaten enough and that you have enough energy stored to be active and exercise. When the brain cannot see the Leptin signal, it sends a signal to the pancreas to increase the production of insulin. Insulin makes you store energy. Once the production of insulin was controlled, those patients started losing weight. Dr. Lustig then found that the same high levels of insulin existed in people who suffered from obesity even though their brain could still see the Leptin signal.
The problem is that when you remove fat from food, whether it is cheese or some other product, it loses flavor and people don’t want to eat it. In order to make it appetizing again, food companies will add sugar. Added sugar, especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup, is found in 80 percent of the food produced in the U.S., according to a recent study by Barry Popkin at the University of North Carolina. It should not surprise you that the “natural compounds” many manufacturers are adding to their low-salt, low-fat cheese to improve the flavor is actually some form of sugar.
What it comes down to is that real cheese has four main ingredients: milk, cultures, rennet and salt. If you remove or replace any of these ingredients with another ingredient, then you are no longer making cheese. You may call it a “cheese product,” or whatever you like, but it is not real cheese. As The New York Times article states, “…salt and fat are critical components, responsible for far more of its character than consumers might think.” What is dismaying is that Fountain cites this as the trouble with cheese and most troubling are the solutions devised in trying to artificially reduce the salt and fat in cheese. First they try to replace sodium chloride with potassium chloride. The problem is that the result is often bitter-tasting cheese. Then they try to replace fat with hydrocolloids, but the end result is a terrible texture and a cheese that tastes like an “eraser.”
The most insulting suggestion by far is reducing salt content gradually so that consumers become accustomed to terrible tasting-cheese. Dr. Mark Johnson, senior scientist with the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains: “If I gave you that cheese, and gave you a full-sodium one, you’d know the difference. But if I didn’t ever give you the higher one, and gave you the lower one, you’d go, ‘Mmmmm, that’s not bad.’”
“Not bad” is not good. It’s safe to say that most people are not interested in dining on a twenty-five-dollar-plate of “not bad” cheese.
Furthermore, Dr. Johnson’s logic, that we should alter nature, is precisely the attitude that’s led to the distorted food system now dominating the U.S. market. The best food is natural food, with a short list of ingredients you can recognize.
Cheese, real cheese, has been enjoyed for thousands of years without causing any serious health risks. In fact, it has always been an important source of nutrition, and the most effective way to preserve the precious resource that is milk throughout the year and over time. Cheese was born out of necessity, and is wonderfully adaptable to address the specific needs of a certain place and time.
Cheese is perfect the way it is, and should not be artificially altered in any way. So please, but leave my cheese alone.