Cheese that’s been reduced in fat and sodium isn’t real cheese. It’s a poor stand-in for cheese that the industry is working to develop as a “healthier” alternative for the millions of Americans who are watching what they eat. As the New York Times recently reported, the industry so far has not had a lot of success in making a low-fat, low-sodium product that people actually want to eat.
For one thing, “when you take a lot of the fat out, essentially cheese will turn into an eraser,” Dr. Gregory D. Miller, president of the Dairy Research Institute, told the Times. “Salt serves as a preservative, as a director of flavor development. If I remove it, my flavor goes in a different direction,” said Mark Johnson, senior scientist with the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In short, as Henry Fountain of the Times writes, “the trouble with cheese is that salt and fat are critical components, responsible for far more of its character,” including flavor, texture and consistency, “than consumers might think.” Salt and fat make the cheese.
Yet the industry finds itself on another quest to alter the basic nature of a food so that it can satisfy standard dietary guidelines and address many Americans’ dietary concerns. With the salt and fat reduced, the product no longer tastes or behaves like cheese, and that’s because it isn’t really. So the industry has to reformulate it by adding substances like potassium chloride (which by itself infuses a bitter note), “compounds that bind with the taste buds so the potassium salt does not” (to offset the bitterness, of course) and hydrocolloids like carrageenan.
The reformulated cheese product may be lower in fat and sodium and it may even have fewer calories, but are those the only relevant considerations here? The problem for me is that what we end up with is fake food. A food that hasn’t stood the test of time the way real cheese has. A food that’s been altered in deference to today’s dietary guidelines. But who knows what the latest scientific evidence will show tomorrow?
For those who are worried about the fat, salt and calories in cheese, the best thing to do may be to simply eat less of it. Many of us, however, would rather be told to eat more — more synthetic cheeselike product that’s now lower in fat and sodium. And the industry wouldn’t have it any other way, as food manufacturers can only make more money as long as we continue to eat more of their products.
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