Over the last decade, a smear campaign has been building against a delicious, smelly, aged, sometimes artisanal, often industrial, food: cheese. Why? Anti-cheesers say that cheese makes us fat, flares up allergies, produces unwanted mucus, and is unfriendly to the human digestive system.
Though not as forceful as the one against gluten, the anti-cheese crusade is the type where it’s no longer just yogis, vegans, or Brooklyn trendsetters as the driving force behind the uproar; instead, it’s the suburban, 30-something, CrossFit-attending, paleo-Jane’s and Joe’s.
Persuaded heavily by the anti-dairy industry and the plant-based, vegetarian and vegan milk movement (that filtered water mixed with a handful of pulverized nuts); books like the China Study, which suggests that casein protein in milk causes cancer; or viral YouTube videos suggesting how casein is addictive, this sect of anti-fromagers blames cheese as the major culprit for a culture of upset stomachs, skin rashes, low energy-levels, and obesity.
“It’s interesting how we are still so mystified by cheese. Why is it that we don’t know much about it, when most of us have been eating it for our entire life? Unlike quinoa or amaranth, which are the current vogue food items, cheese has been a part of our diet for a very long time,” says Carlos Yescas, Program Director of the Oldways Cheese Coalition located in Boston, Massachusetts.
As a time-honored food tradition thought to be born some 8-10,000 years ago (it’s even referenced in Homer’s Odyssey at the end of the 8th century BCE), cheese has served as an ample source of calories for humans, nourishing the body in times of famine with fat, vitamins, and minerals.
But in 2015, cheese’s role as a vital form of sustenance—one that has fed pastoral communities for millennia—is under attack.
“There are some very real health concerns, as some people are actually allergic to the protein in cheese called casein. And they should avoid cheese. But for the others, I ask: What was the type of cheese that they ate? How much did they eat? What did they eat the cheese with—beer, soda? And ultimately, should they be blaming solely the cheese?” says Yescas.
No longer are the days when terrible, ultra-pasteurized processed cheese is the go-to hor d’oeurve on a Thursday night, even though “Sargento Tastings Fiesta Pepper Jack” supposedly pairs well with beer and the NFL. According to sales and trends of the International Dairy Foods Association (IFMA), more people are consuming less processed cheeses, as these “unnatural foodstuffs” have been on a decline over the past decade.
“When it comes to cheese, there exists what I call the levels of terrible,” Yescas says. “The cheese melted over nachos at a ballpark or placed on a hamburger is the lowest common denominator. It’s made from the leftovers of other dairy productions, and added with starch, fat, and melting salts. It’s pure fat and oils and actually tastes very sweet.”
“The second level of terrible is blocked cheddar, but it’s not necessarily bad,” he continues. “They don’t always add in vegetable oils, making more with less, but the milk that is used to make these blocked cheeses is not the highest quality. The milk has to be completely pasteurized and homogenized because you have to ensure that the mixture of thousands of cows’ milk—from separate farms, some are sick, some are on antibiotics, others are on growth hormone, and most are eating corn, not natural feed for cows—is safe. And lastly, the highest level of cheese is artisanal,” says Yescas.
With the Michael Pollan Omnivore’s Dilemma food movement well underway, more people are beginning to understand these tiers of quality, as well as the role Big Industry plays making cheese more of a product than a food. Despite these leaps in knowledge, cheese has a bad reputation—in particular, it’s linked to lactose sensitivity issues, weight-gain, and the question of whether humans are even meant to digest cheese, from an evolutionary standpoint.
“The long-running theory is that Americans are afraid of fat. But we need fat. And the newest theory brewing against cheese for the past five to seven years, well, it’s attached to the Paleo Diet. The notion is that humans and our ancestors were probably lactose intolerant millions of years ago, thought to be hunter-gatherers, and didn’t eat cheese, so neither should we in 2015,” Yescas says.
Let’s just say our digestive track is more capable of digesting cheese than 38 grams of sugar in a can of Coca-Cola or Pepsi. But we still do it—daily.
As for the lactose query, the answer is simple. “Virtually any cheese over 60 days old is lactose free,” says Yescas. “But if it’s fresh cheese, it will have lactose in it, so people need to keep this in mind.”
So really, it looks like people are eating young, processed cheese with added vegetable oil and starch, consuming gobs of it mixed with other foods, then doing ten rounds of ten reps of CrossFit deadlifts the next day.
But sure, let’s blame cheese for our upset stomachs.