Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Are You a Cheesehead?

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Brillat Savarin, Cheese (France)

Brillat Savarin, Cheese (France) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the last few years, there has been an ongoing controversy as to whether saturated fat increases heart disease risk. Some data support this hypothesis; others do not. The main sources of saturated fat in the U.S. diet comes from butter, meat, and cheese. Much attention is paid to meat, particularly red meat; however, there is less talk about our rising consumption of cheese and cheese products.

America’s cheese consumption has skyrocketed in the past four decades. Estimates tell us the average US consumer consumes from 23 pounds to 33 pounds per year per person. In 1970, the number was about eight pounds.

Yogurt consumption has also risen dramatically, but yogurt is not found in many menu items since it is simply eaten alone and does have low fat varieties. The only problem with yogurt is the sugar content, so read the labels and try to find a brand with less sugar.

Why are we eating all this cheese?  Michael Moss in his recent book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us writes: “In the hands of food manufacturers, cheese has become an ingredient”. Thus we have cheese-injected pizza crusts and cheese-draped frozen entrees, cheesy chips and cheesy crackers. Cheese and its processed derivatives were deployed across a gazillion new products and line extensions during decades when Americans, as a fat-avoidance tactic, were actually cutting their milk consumption by 75 percent. From a fat-consumption point of view, he says, “trading cheese for milk has been a poor bargain indeed.”

But the supermarket pales in its cheese products when it comes to eating out. Fast foods seem to put cheese in or on almost everything they offer. Consider the Taco Bell steak quesadilla, with cheddar, pepper jack, mozzarella and a creamy sauce. “The item used an average of eight times more cheese than other items on their menu,”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reports every so often on The Changing American Diet: A Report Card, (2013). Based on this data, Dairy gets a C minus primarily due to the increased cheese consumption. Think about pizza, burgers, nachos,quesadillas, sandwiches, and pizza crusts on almost every fast food restaurant menu.

Meat, Poultry, and Seafood got a B. They report that beef consumption has not been this low since the 1950’s. But red meat (mostly beef and pork) is at 74 pounds per person per year which exceeds poultry plus seafood at 65 pounds.

This month (May, 2014) CSPI published an article in Nutrition Action Health Letter  called Chow Itallano: When Not in Rome. When you compare menu items from appetizers, entrees and desserts from Carrabba”s, Olive Garden, Maggiano”s, and Macaroni Grill , they reported that out of 32 menu items over 600 calories, 19 of them contained some form of cheese product.

France has continued to be famous for the French paradox: How in the world, we wonder do the French eat all that fromage (cheese) and still come with some pretty impressive low heart disease rates? The French say, “Americans don’t know how to eat”, not what to eat, but how?, reported in a delightful book, The Whole Fromage: Adventures in the Delectable World of French Cheese by Kathe Lison. Cheese is so imbedded in the French culture that the well-known gastronome Brillat-Savarin said: “A meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye”.

So I thought “How do the French eat cheese? Here are secrets from Kathe Lison.
First, the French keep a cheese plate filled with a variety of delicious full-fat cheese in the refrigerator at all times.

The second step is to take the cheese out of the refrigerator while preparing the meal to let it reach room temperature for optimal flavor. This easy practice makes cheese eating associated with meal times only, not snacking – the French are not big on snacking anyway. The French government even runs a commercial to remind its listeners about the dangers of snacking. How different from the U.S. which has two to three aisles labeled either crackers, chips, snacks or all of the above) in the supermarket.

I always wondered what the significance of the fruit and cheese plate was at the end of the meal for dessert, unlike the American habit of having cheese as an appetizer before the meal. When it is available at the end of the meal, the French eat a few slivers of full-fat cheese (the best) and send a message to their brains that “I’m full now”. This makes such sense as a practice of moderation, far better than the over-indulgence of having cheese in almost every entree in our diets.

Ms. Lison then offers this advice: “The ultimate step to eating cheese like a French person, then, is this: Enjoy it. If there’s one thing the French know well about eating right, it’s that it should be pleasurable. So, make like a French person and savor your cheese.”

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