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Changing the tune on cheese

Just in time for the holiday season with cheese cases brimming and customers stocking up for their party platters, new research is emerging that cheese may not be so bad for our health.

It’s long been the message of dietitians and other health professionals that cheese should be consumed in moderation and cheese that is consumed more frequently should be in the low-fat category with less than 20% Milk Fat (M.F.). This includes cottage cheese, skim mozzarella, light feta, ricotta and specially designed “light” cheeses like the Allegro line.

However, this message does not mesh well with holiday party-goers who would rather be noshing on high-fat and often more flavourful cheeses, like brie, gouda, camembert, blue, cheddar and so many more artisan cheeses.

At the recent Dairy Farmers of Canada Symposium, researcher Benoit Lamarche, PhD, presented a meta-analysis of data regarding saturated fat, a very hot topic in the nutrition world of late. The debate has been whether saturated fat really is the culprit in increasing LDL or “bad” cholesterol and coronary heart disease risk and if it matters whether this saturated fat comes from plants or animals.

The grand debate was not settled. It cannot be stated conclusively that saturated fat is good or bad. What can be stated is current research shows that saturated fat from cheese does not appear to raise LDL cholesterol nor increase risk of coronary heart disease. The hypothesis is that other nutrients in the cheese, like the protein, vitamins and minerals, not to mention the healthy bacteria, play a role in determining how the body treats the saturated fat. The same does not seem to hold true though for meat and its relationship to cardiovascular disease risk.

Cheese is a great source of protein and calcium and has been consumed for centuries throughout the world. It was traditionally prepared as a method of preserving milk from cows, goats and sheep because it has the ability to keep longer unrefrigerated without spoiling than fluid milk. It was widespread by the time of the Roman Empire but began at the earliest domestication of milk-producing animals and is even referenced in the relics of the Egyptian tombs.

Today, Canadians consume approximately 12.5 kg of cheese per person per year, similar to the U.S. and Australia but that amount is less than half of what is consumed by citizens in countries like Greece, France and Germany.

So let’s follow in the European tradition and encourage consumers to end their meals with a cheese course. Give them the basics on preparing a perfect platter—usually 4 choices of cheese are recommended and it is important to include different textures, different milk sources and a mix of sharper and more mellow flavours. Say cheese!

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