It’s no wonder ‘cheese’ is the word most often used to make us smile for photographs: even the thought of it makes us happy. The story of cheese as a preservation method for milk through to artisanal masterpieces and myriad types, flavours, textures and culinary uses today, is a fascinating one.
The favoured theory of how cheese was born is that over 7,000 years ago, nomadic shepherds in the Middle East were carrying milk in a bag made from the stomach of a goat or sheep and the milk curdled. What they accidentally discovered was the milk reacted with the enzymes (rennet) in the stomach lining and caused the curd (solid), to separate from the whey (liquid), in a process used to this day to make cheese.
Four simple ingredients make up most standard cheese; milk, rennet, salt and lactic acid bacteria, which together create a wide range of flavour compounds which give cheese its unique flavour. In a kind of magical conjuring double-act between Mother Nature and cheese-makers; tweaking the type of bacteria added, salt, moisture levels and aging time can produce thousands of different types of cheese. To keep your cheese nice, store it loosely wrapped in wax paper inside a container or plastic bag to prevent trapped moisture causing mould, and to prevent the cheese picking up odours and flavours from plastic and other foods in the fridge.
Photo: Ian Hofstetter, The Low GI Vegetarian Cookbook (Hachette Australia)
Cheese is one of the richest food sources of calcium that is highly bio-available, which makes sense when you consider it a concentrated form of milk. Many of us – especially women, children and teenagers – don’t get enough calcium so perhaps we should ‘say cheese’ more often. Until recently, the prevailing thought about cheese was one of a nutrition trade-off: sure, it’s rich in calcium, phosphorous, protein, vitamins A, B12, riboflavin and zinc, but what about all that saturated fat and salt?
Emerging research has been reassuring and points to the idea that there’s something about dairy – including cheese – that appears to offset the negative nutrients it contains. Population studies have found no association between cheese intake and risk of ischemic heart disease, but rather that eating cheese is associated with a REDUCED risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and high blood pressure. Exactly why this is the case is not certain, although the fermentation process and perhaps calcium are implicated. Cheese and dairy foods are at the frontline of the paradigm shift taking place in the nutrition world that puts the whole food and not just its key nutrients at the centre of their effects on health.
Many kids could do with eating more cheese to get their daily calcium and to replace less nutritious snacks. While even your kids could tell you cheese is good for bones, cheese is also good for teeth. It inhibits tooth decay (is non-cariogenic), and provides a protective coating for teeth (cariostatic ) due to its casein (protein), calcium and phosphate which buffer plaque pH by reducing tooth enamel solubility and bacterial adherence. This tooth-friendly status makes it an excellent snack to eat away from home when they can’t brush their teeth. There’s no need to buy processed, packaged types: just take a slice off the old block and pop it into a container. It goes wonderfully well with cherry tomatoes, celery, carrot sticks and apple. As an after school snack, cheesy toast is easy-peasy (on wholegrain, low GI bread of course).
Typically the harder the cheese, the more calcium it contains: cheddar trumps gooey camembert and Swiss trumps stinky brie. Cream cheese is a mixture of cheese and cream so there’s less goodness to speak of; sadly, cream and butter are not blessed with the health benefits of milk, cheese and yoghurt. And processed cheese spread? Enough said. I’ve heard people say they are lactose intolerant as a reason for passing on the cheese plate however hard cheese has zero lactose, and softer cheeses contain very little: ricotta contains less than one tenth of one percent lactose (and you can check lactose content within the nutrition information panel – it will be the carbohydrate and/or sugars content).
Having said all this, we probably need to stop short of gay abandon in the cheese department. It is unlikely that ‘plastic’ cheese in a can (low calcium, high salt) sprayed over hot dogs (processed meat and high GI carbohydrate) is going to be of benefit to health, but there’s no need to ‘hold the cheese’ on your salad sandwich or miss out on the golden gooey goodness of melted cheese on your lasagne, or sprinkle of parmesan on your spaghetti. A little bit of cheese can go a long way to add flavour and protein to a meal or snack. The (newly revised) Dietary Guidelines for Australians sum up the situation by suggesting to limit cheese to 2–3 serves a week or choose reduced fat types, and warn against too much of the saltier cheeses such as fetta: sounds prudent and reasonable.
When all this cheese science is melted down, you’re better off (and always have been) eating a core food like cheese than consuming so-called ‘discretionary foods’ like sweets, soft drinks and fried savoury snacks. This reassurance about cheese is good news for those who prefer the cheese plate than the dessert menu but of course the biggest issue for us all is avoiding weight gain so perhaps we’d all be better off with herbal tea after dinner!
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist, author, speaker, consultant, and commentator with an interest in how we can learn to love good food that's good for us.