The Skinny on Cheese
I cheese you cheese, we all cheese for CHEESE! Okay it’s not exactly ice cream, but as we count calories for a healthier lifestyle, we may shun cheese-laden dishes like pizza, nachos, and macaroni and cheese. For this and other reasons, cheese may not be high on your healthy-foods-to-eat list, but the cheese industry is looking to change that. As lowering salt and fat in foods becomes big business, cheese is the latest on the chopping block. Because most cheeses have a short ingredient list of milk, salt, and enzymes, tinkering with it can have drastic effects for consumers. Food manufacturers are trying to strike a balance between less fat and salt, without sacrificing too much in the flavor department. But they have a daunting task before them. Lloyd Metzger, dairy scientist at South Dakota State University, tells the New York Times, “If you really want to make bad cheese, make a low-fat, low-sodium one.” Because you’ll be hard pressed to find both in one product, here’s what to expect taste-wise from a low-fat vs. low-sodium cheese.
The president of the Dairy Research Institute, Gregory D. Miller was quoted as saying, “When you take a lot of the fat out, essentially cheese will turn into an eraser.” His is a reference to the change in moisture that goes with lowering fat in cheese. If there is less fat that means more water, which results in less flavor, a different texture, and quicker spoilage, all of which are undesirable to consumers. A study in the Journal of Sensory Studies by North Carolina State University researchers found consumers would leave lower fat cheese on the shelf if both taste and texture differences were not up to par with full-fat cheese. This aligns with an industry report by Dairy Management, Inc. that reveals reduced-fat cheese is the most popular of the less fat options. So you know, reduced-fat cheese is about 25% less fat than full-fat cheese, while light is between a third to 50% less fat. Low fat is 3 grams of fat or less per serving and fat-free is less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving. To savor the flavor and save calories, go for less than full-fat cheeses in combination dishes where you won’t miss the taste, such as casseroles, pasta dishes, and sauces. Go for full-fat when it counts such as in salads, sandwiches, and when its served on its own, such as on platters with fresh vegetables, crackers, or grapes.
In addition to controlling moisture, salt controls bacteria, both of which affect flavor. This means you’ll see more sodium in many reduced fat cheese offerings to maintain flavor. But less salt means sacrificing flavor. It’s no wonder that sales of low-sodium cheese has been lackluster. According to the National Dairy Council, the percentage of sales of low-sodium cheddar cheese accounts for a “trivial” portion of the market. Adding salt substitutes doesn’t solve the flavor problem either. Even if the taste is perfected the change in name could turn customers off. Unlike products that use artificial sweeteners as sugar substitutes, cheese undergoes a name change when salt substitutes such as potassium chloride are used. For example, as oppose to Cheddar Cheese, its’ name would be Cheddar Cheese product. Aside from flavor, drastic cuts in sodium could pose food safety issues as salt acts as a preservative.
The Highs and Lows of Cheese
It's good to know what you're getting your cheese-loving self into, and because you're likely to enjoy some low-fat or low-sodium options alongside regular full-fat cheese, we wanted to share a list of the naturally highs and lows of fat and sodium content in cheese.
- Most fat (grams per oz): Sharp Cheddar 9
- Least fat (grams per oz): Mozzarella(Part-Skim) 4.5
- Most sodium (mg per oz): American 273
- Least sodium (mg per oz): Swiss 54
How do you get your cheese fix without going overboard with fat or sodium?
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