There’s a lot of prejudice against cheese. The question I am most asked by people who watch my show ABCheese is, “How high is your cholesterol?”
Loved by many, formaggio is called many names, ‘fat’ being the one above any other. Some folks are freaked out – if not utterly disgusted – by the noble moulds growing in blues like gorgonzola and Stilton, or the potent funk of washed rind cheeses like Epoisses and Taleggio.
I feel I owe cheese the due respect it deserves. Here are 5 truths that will break your preconceived ideas on milk’s leap towards immortality.
It’s too fat!
On paper, that is. Yes, cheese does contain high amounts of fat (19% in mozzarella di bufala; 33% in Sicilian pecorino; 28% in Parmigiano), but the equation needs to also consider the average amount we normally eat (me included). A normal portion of meat is 150 g (5 oz), while a large serving of Parmigiano never really exceeds 50 g (1.7 oz). There is tentative evidence that the modern nutritional recommendation “Mediterranean Diet” lowers the risk of heart disease and early death, and has shown positive effects on weight loss. The principal aspects of this dietary program include proportionally high consumption of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruit and vegetables; moderate-high consumption of fish; moderate consumption of dairy products – mostly as cheese and yogurt – and wine; and low consumption of red meat.
There are so many calories in aged cheese!
Actually not. The aroma and texture of fresh cheeses shouldn’t mislead you. Fresh cheese is actually less digestible than aged cheese, and often times more caloric. During the long aging period, microorganisms operate a sort of “pre-digestion” of proteins. During this phase, lactose is also lost. On the downside, aged cheeses present tyramine (teeny chalky clumps found in the pulp), which can cause headaches!
It’s full of cholesterol!
As a compound of the steroid alcohols – an important class of organic molecules found in most body tissues – cholesterol and its derivatives are important constituents of plant, animal and human cell membranes. High concentrations of cholesterol in the blood are known to promote atherosclerosis (fatty build-up in the inner walls of arteries).
Let me prove how cheese is not the crazy cholesterol intake you’re made to believe: 100 g (about 3.5 oz) of skinless turkey leg meat contains 108 mg (0.0038 oz) of cholesterol; 100 g of grilled veal fillet contains 100 mg (0.0035 oz) while a serving of gorgonzola (70 g/2.5 oz) contains less than 50 mg of cholesterol (0.0017 oz).
The moulds are dangerous!
To the contrary! The action of pennicillium moulds present in the blue streaks in cheese actually make it more digestible, and produce absolutely no toxic substance. Same goes for the white, stinking rind that conceals bloomy brie and camembert-style cheeses. What about the whitish mildew or green mold growing on the piece of cheese I have in my fridge? Again nothing dangerous. Carve away any moldy areas present on the rind or deeper in the pulp of the cheese and eat in perfect safety. A good idea to avoid moulds growing on your cheese is wrapping it in baking or parchment paper first and then storing it in a loosly sealed plastic bag in the warmest part of your fridge.
Eat it at the end of the meal!
Not a good idea after a big serving of fish or meat. That would be an excessive protein haul for your digestive system. Cheese is a fantastic protein supply and should be considered as a main course, paired with cooked or raw leafy greens or any other fibrous vegetable, whose minerals will aid the digestion process.
Data contributed by Professor Giorgio Donegani, scientific director at Fondazione Italiana per l’Educazione Alimentare.
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, journalist, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her show “ABCheese” is broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso. She loves guiding culturally curious, food-passionate travellers seeking experiences in Italy beyond the guidebook.