Salty, decadent, creamy, strong – there are so many different kinds of cheeses sometimes it’s hard to know which to pick. Especially if you’re trying to eat healthy, it might seem better to skip the cheese course all together, but with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommending three cups of dairy products daily, it’s easy to advocate for cheese’s place in a balanced meal. Arm yourself with a few cheese facts to choose your cheeses wisely!
A brief history
Thousands of years ago, cheese was created as a way to use and preserve milk from sheep and goats. Nomads of the Middle East and central Asia discovered milk soured by gastric enzymes within animal stomachs and would add salt to further preserve it. Around 2,300 B.C., Egyptians began making cheese outside of an animal’s stomach, using a practice that was later brought by Asian travelers to Europe where it reached its peak during the Roman Empire. In the 10th century, after monks improved upon the formulation process, Italy became the cheese making center of Europe. As cheese making flourished, it migrated to America with the pilgrims on the 1620 Mayflower voyage. From there, cheese making and eating grew into an American tradition. Today, artisanal cheese crafting goes beyond necessity, with cheese delicacies being created across the globe in an endless number of styles and flavors.
How it’s made
Cheese is formed when rennet, an enzyme acting as a coagulant, alters the structural composition of milk protein, resulting in the creation of curds (soured milk solids) and whey (the remaining liquid). Curds are later separated from the whey, then pressed and heated to form the familiar salty, stinky block of deliciousness we all know and love.
While cheese can play a great supporting character to any healthy daily meal routine, it’s important to understand its place in a balanced diet. Here’s a little food for thought to get started.
6 Cheese Facts & How to Stay Healthy
1. Keep cheese to 1 of 3 your recommended daily servings of dairy.
For many health-conscious eaters, cheese is something that’s often dismissed because of its fat, calorie and notoriously high sodium content. However, newly issued guidelines for Americans determined by the Institute of Medicine state that there is no evidence to suggest reducing sodium intake below 2300 mg per day is beneficial for the average healthy person. So feel free to grate a little Parmesan on your veggies, or enjoy a nice chunk with a glass of flavonoid-rich red wine.
2. Get some of your supporting nutrients from cheese.
Cheese contains protein, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and vitamins A, B2, B12 and D — all of which must be present in a complete diet. Because our bones are in a constant state of turnover, making calcium deposits and withdrawals daily, a generous slice of cheese — like Comte, which boasts an impressive 374 milligrams of calcium per serving — does the body a lot of good.
3. Consider cheese a dessert.
Pairing cheese with a chilled aromatic beer — a European tradition — helps train the mind to recognize cheese as an occasional meal component rather than staple. Some popular cheese-beer duos include: wheat beer and goat cheese, pilsner with short-aged gouda or a stout with blue cheese. For the moderate beer drinker, beer poses some health benefits of its own, including increasing good HDL cholesterol and providing the body with B vitamins such as niacin, folate, B6 and riboflavin.
4. Skip the processed versions.
Instead of wasting a cheese serving on processed versions made of cheese by-products, emulsifiers, stabilizers and food coloring, explore more wholesome varieties. Grana Padano, which originates from Italy and has a sweet, fresh taste with hints of pineapple or nuts, is a great option. Manchego, which hails from Spain and pairs nicely with olives, almonds, dried fruit or bread, is another solid choice.
5. Buy local when possible.
If you’re looking to support your local economy, buying locally produced cheese is a great way to do it. It lasts much longer than produce and can be made just about anywhere. Ask around at your local farmers market, or check out online resources such as Garden and Gun to find out where to pick up regional, artisanal cheeses.
6. Keep it sharp.
Consider buying sharp cheeses such as Emmental, Parmesan or Pecorino Romano to help deliver pungent flavor while still encouraging portion control. Pecorino Romano, named after the Italian word for “sheep,” has a tangier, sharper flavor than Parmesan and is best crumbled over pasta. Emmental cheese (from the Emmental valley in Switzerland) blends well in fondues, adding subtle sharp and sweet flavors.
Contributed by Chelsea Cordes, RDN