Cheese, described by writer Clifton Fadiman as “milk’s leap toward immortality,” is one of our most beloved foods. In honor of American Cheese Month, we give you five surprising facts about our most widely-consumed dairy item.
1. Our love is both physiological and cultural.
One year ago, news outlets declared cheese “really is crack” and as addictive as drugs. What the study actually showed was that high-fat foods (including cheese), plus sugary and processed foods, are “implicated in addictive-like eating.” Lead researcher Ashley Gearhardt clarified in an interview with Science News: “We like lots of things. I like hip-hop music and sunshine and my wiener dog, but I’m not addicted to her. I eat cheese every day. That doesn’t mean you’e addicted or it has addictive potential.”
What we can say with certainty is that our love of cheese has grown exponentially — and was no accident. In 1995, the dairy industry created Dairy Management Inc. with the explicit purpose of encouraging consumption of American dairy products. The organization is funded by a dues collection system that was approved by Congress. Domestic dairy farmers and dairy importers pay into a product promotion fund overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help raise the profile of all things dairy (“Got Milk?”). As milk consumption waned, Dairy Management refocused its efforts on cheese, leveraging a $12 million marketing budget to support a line of Domino’s pizza with 40 percent more cheese, plus scores of cheesy burgers, double melts and cheese bites.
Today, we eat approximately 37 pounds of cheese every year, an increase of more than
40 percent in the last quarter-century that’s contributed to a whopping 20 additional
pounds in total fat we eat each year. This demand, of course, has also impacted supply—and oversupply.
2. We have reached Peak Cheese.
A combination of industry marketing, government subsidies and an increase in foreign imports have contributed to an unprecedented stockpile of more than 1 billion pounds of cheese at a time when milk prices have plunged to their lowest point since 2009. Farmers have tried to boost prices by dumping more than 43 million gallons of milk, while the USDA has announced it will buy a total of $40 million worth of cheese from private stocks to redistribute to food banks and pantries.
The USDA buyback only absorbs a fraction of the oversupply — and isn’t without its critics. The government plan to send surplus cheese to institutions tasked with feeding people who are food insecure not only contradicts dietary guidelines from the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture that recommend limiting intake of saturated dairy fat, it exacerbates the challenges that lower-income communities already face around obesity and micronutrient malnutrition.
“Higher consumption of calories from subsidized food commodities,” a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control CDC and Emory University concluded, is associated with “a greater probability of some cardiometabolic risks.”
3. But not all cheese is created alike.
The American Cheese Society (ACS) defines specialty cheese as “cheese of limited production, with particular attention paid to natural flavor and texture profiles.” This is in contrast to processed cheese, what ACS describes as “cheese by-products made from a combination of natural cheese and added ingredients, such as stabilizers, emulsifiers and flavor enhancers that are used to create a consistent and shelf-stable product aimed at mass market consumption.” So while a Kraft single is designed to be the same, slice after slice, specialty cheese is heralded for its differences.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, food consultant Dan Strongin stresses in the dairy
industry newsletter Cheese Reporter, because ”[it] enables it to be sold in large volume to compete on price.” But that scale compromises the diversity of flavors cheese can offer. Fifty aroma compounds have been identified in mozzarella and cheddar alone.
4. Flavor differences don’t start with the milk, they start with the cow (sheep, goat or buffalo).
The tastes and aromas that combine in our experience of flavor have long been attributed to the way milk — through fermentation and aging — makes its “leap toward immortality,” but it actually starts with the breed of animal, the attributes of its feed and the way that feed is digested.
Ruminants are mammals with four-chambered stomachs that break down nutrients from
their plant-based diets. The largest chamber, known as the rumen, is considered “a
fermentation vat par excellance the place where bacteria transforms animal feed into voluminous amounts of gas (up to 264 gallons per day) and volatile fatty acids that impart what are known as “species-related flavors; (illuminated in this wonderful, wonky presentation from Zoe Brickley, Jasper Hill Farm heads of sales and marketing).
Add to this, the microbes on the skins of the animals’ teats and the environments in which they live and roam. It’s not just what cows and other animals eat, it’s what they smell. The aromas present in the areas in which animals are milked work their way into their bloodstreams and, subsequently, their milk. John Campbell and Robert Campbell write in Dairy Production and Processing: The Science of Milk and Milk Products, “Blood passing through the lungs for oxygenation picks up volatile compounds, and they are soon conveyed to tissues of mammary glands that synthesize milk. Inhaled odors may appear in milk in as few as 20 min [sic].” In other words, flavor development begins well before milk hits the pail and continues to develop through subsequent (external) fermentation and processing in both raw and pasteurized cheese.
5. Raw milk cheese isn’t anything to be afraid of.
Artisan cheese makers have known this for centuries, but only recently—through the lobbying efforts of ACS and makers—has the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) gotten on board. Earlier this year the agency announced it was “pausing” testing for non-toxigenic Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria. While some forms of the bacteria are pathogenic and can reflect unsanitary work conditions, most E. coli are harmless. They live in our (and animals’) digestive tracts and can provide resistance against disease-causing organisms.
Dr. Nega Beru, the director of the FDA Office of Food Safety, explained in an emailed
statement: “The FDA made the change after considering the literature available on generic E.coli levels in milk and the impact of processing on generic E.coli. The FDA also carefully considered standards from around the world before making its decision as to what level best ensured that foods were likely produced under sanitary conditions. The current level is in line with standards around the world, and the FDA expects that properly manufactured milk products, whether made from raw milk or pasteurized milk, should not be affected.”
Although the testing has only been paused, a spokeswoman for FDA confirmed there are no current plans to resume this testing. Each American would have to eat an additional 3 pounds of cheese per person to eliminate our cheese glut. Now is the perfect time to commence with the Tarentaise and Camembert.