by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
One of the prides and joys of Vermont is our specialty—locally made cheeses. There are different varieties available but cow’s milk, sheep’s milk, and goat’s milk are the most common. The textures vary from firm and hard to soft and spreadable. I can’t even begin to explain the tastes of the cheeses since there is such an incredible array out there—from the delicate mild taste to the stronger flavors of those aged for many months or even years. The cheesemaking process brings out the full complement of complex and delicious tastes and that’s what makes every cheese so different.
Cheesemaking has existed for thousands of years. It originally was used as a method to extend the life of fresh milk when stable refrigeration was not available, while at the same time preserving its nutritional value. Cheesemaking is experiencing a comeback now in this country, which is very exciting. It seems that every time I go to any of the local farmers markets around Windham County, I see new cheese producers selling their products and giving out samples. Vermont is one of the leading producers of artisan cheeses in the United States. California and Wisconsin are two other large states that surpass our production. Overall cheese intake in the United States has doubled in the last 30 years while milk consumption has decreased. It takes about 10 pounds of milk to produce one pound of cheese. It has been estimated that Americans consumed approximately 912 million pounds of cheese in 2012. Some of the most popular cheeses are cheddar, mozzarella, Monterey Jack, provolone, and colby. Less popular varieties are Swiss, cream cheese, Neufchatel, and queso.
Cheese has a lot to offer nutritionally. It contains significant amounts of protein, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, vitamin A, and the B-vitamins folic acid, riboflavin, and B-12. It does contain small amounts of other B-vitamins, and vitamins D and K2 also. It is a source of the natural sugar lactose but many of the fermented cheeses such as cheddar. Mozzarella, and feta contain much lesser amounts when they are ripened or aged. Vitamin K2 is present in most fermented cheeses since it is added as a part of the synthesizing bacteria used to initiate the ripening process. It is specified on the label but it is called menaquinone. Vitamin D is naturally occurring in cheese if the milk used to make it has already been fortified with it. One major drawback with cheese is its fat content (approximately 65 to 80 percent fat), and much of this is saturated solid fat. For those with cardiac health and high cholesterol issues it must be consumed wisely and with discretion. Cheese for people with these health risks should use it as a condiment occasionally rather than in large concentrated amounts. In spite of its drawbacks for cardiovascular health it does have other benefits in both its role in improving bone health as well as preventing dental cavities. Research has also found that one particular fat referred to as CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid (ONLY found in grass-fed animals), is protective against heart disease, the immune system, and the inflammation process as well. This is a plus since much of the cheese produced in Vermont is from cows that are primarily grass fed, but this should be labeled on the product or the producer needs to be asked. One other positive health attribute for cheese is its effect on blood sugars, so an intake of cheese in balance with a healthy diet can be very beneficial.
Rennet is an enzyme used by many cheese producers to initiate coagulation of the “curds.” Rennet helps contribute a softer gel-like form of curd that is stronger, which cheese makers like. Unfortunately the downside of this product is that it is taken from the stomachs of young calves after they are slaughtered for veal production. Now that more consumers are aware of this and are ethically opposed to its use, cheese producers are finding alternatives, such as a vegetable- or bacteria-derived rennet. This is also usually specified on the cheese label.
There are many who are allergic to or intolerant of cheese. There are a variety of alternatives out there, but it is important to read labels since they are not all dairy free, so look for that key phrase. Many still contain casein, the milk protein that can be problematic. Keep in mind too that non-dairy alternatives do not contain the same nutritional value (very low in protein unless they are soy based) and can contain a good amount of fillers or vegetable oils. It is best to sample them since they taste different and acceptance is based on your own personal decision. Some people can tolerate goat and sheep cheese but not cow’s milk cheese so that is another consideration.
It’s not hard to find uses for cheese since it is delicious just by itself. Some of my favorite ways to eat cheese are: fresh mozzarella with Vermont-grown tomatoes alongside fresh basil leaves; goat cheese in a salad with apples or pears and feta in a grain- or green-based salad; grated cheese on a variety of soups or pasta dishes; and hot pepper or garlic herb cheese or goat cheese on crackers. My mouth begins to water just thinking of these ideas. Enjoy the great variety of all the cheeses our state has to offer right in our local backyard. There are enough cheeses that certainly there is one to please everyone’s taste buds!!