Rethinking the nutritional value of cheese: Is it really so bad?

In my last post, I raved about cheese and how we attach such strong memories – and a sense of culture and place, or terroir to each variety.  But we often look at cheese as an indulgent treat or topping, often as a guilty pleasure. But is it really so bad? Does cheese have its own redeeming nutritional value?

In his book Cooked, author Michael Pollan explores how humans – through various natural elements, accidents, and other phenomenon – have learned to transform plants and animals into what we know as food. He devotes an entire quarter of his book to “earth” – or, more specifically, how we have relied upon microorganisms to ferment and therefore to “cook” our food for us.

When he talks about the importance of bacterial and fungal rot to the cheese making process – what we like to call more benignly “culturing and aging”, it can be a bit unappetizing. I happened to have just eaten a cheese plate before reading his section on cheese, and was I ever glad I’d already finished it! I’ve definitely – like many of you – often preferred not to think of the origins of my food. If I had to butcher a chicken or cow myself – or even watch – I would never again touch meat (if I had other options) and I definitely don’t want to watch sausage be made! So being reminded that so many of our favorite delicacies (cheese being just one of many) are made through fermentation – or rot – is pretty disgusting.

Pollan explains that what makes cheese so delicious – and digestible – is the fact that a multitude of bacteria and/or fungi have been doing some of that work for us. If you’ve ever had homemade cheese – or simply just fresh mozzarella or sour cream/creme freche/crema fresca, you will recall how mild those flavors are in comparison to an aged cheese. Think of the nutty sweetness of an aged Gouda or the earthy bite of silky yet stinky Camembert, which are even more advanced in the fermentation/rot process.

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If the realization that half of our food comes to us partially digested by other organisms doesn’t make you shudder instinctively, I don’t know what else would do so for you – congratulations! Yet is that very process that makes cheese and other fermented foods delicious and more nutritious. The mainstream media bandwagon has been advertising the benefits of probiotics (I.e. Bacterial cultures in yogurt, kefir, or kombucha) for a few years now. If your physician or pharmacy has refused you antibiotics in the past decade, then you might have some knowledge (or a lot of confusion).

 

two products of bacterial fermentation

 
Scientific research overwhelmingly indicates that we have over-sterilized our environment, including our food, to our own detriment. Without “good” bacteria to keep our gut – and bodies – healthy, we are susceptible to illnesses from super bugs – and more. Pollan notes that some experimental research even goes so far to suggest a link between a lack of one variety of good bacteria and appetite suppression.

In other words, without good bacteria to keep our appetites in check, we are eating more, and we’re eating “dead” food deficient in bacteria and nutrients, which might be responsible for a vicious cycle of health problems.

Wait, you’re thinking. Where is she going with this? Is cheese supposed to be the solution to our problems?

Not exactly. We can’t undo three to four generations of over sterilizing our foods and our environments. All I’m saying is that evidence is mounting that cheese, like many other foods (eggs, tuna/salmon, grains) that have been demonized in the past for being “bad for you” might have more to offer nutritionally than it might seem – in moderation, of course.

As many of you are well aware, cheese is high in calcium and protein. The aging process of cheese helps to break down lactose (milk sugars) and make it more easily digestible, which also helps our bodies to absorb the other minerals and vitamins from cheese and other foods.  Just keep in mind that it is high in fat, and saturated fat, so moderation is key to balance health benefits and risks, just as with any food.

So the next time you contemplate indulging in a bit of cheese, weigh that guilt against the probiotic and other benefits this bit of dairy might add to your diet in moderation!

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