The Edmond Sun


December 14, 2012

Cheese — it's what's good for us

EDMOND — Call me eccentric, but I’m always on the lookout for headlines about cheese. This week, I hit paydirt — again.

My interest in cheese is due to my travels across the United States, Europe, the Middle East and South Africa. Almost every region I visit points with pride to a locally grown crop, a locally bottled beverage — beer or wine — and to their locally made cheese. Even an amateur cheesiologist (yeah, that’s the word — look it up) can tell there are expansive ranges in cheese flavors and textures depending on local traditions, ingredients and preparation. But let’s get to that headline.

According to the latest issue of the journal Nature, a group of international scientists are confident they’ve discovered the most ancient evidence yet of prehistoric cheesemaking. They found pottery fragments in the Kuyavia region of Poland suggesting Neolithic herders made cheese more than 7,000 years ago.

No one knows how the first primitive herdsman discovered the art of cheesemaking. But the most likely theory holds that some ancient wanderer used an animal stomach (cow, buffalo, goat or sheep are all candidates) as a vessel to transport milk. An enzyme called rennet caused the milk to separate into “curds and whey.” The rest, really is, history.

Amazingly, even though cheese has been an important culinary favorite throughout Western populations for millennia, many modern nutritionists are eager to sound the alarm where cheese is concerned; there are too many calories, there’s too much fat, too much sodium, it’s incompatible with the human digestive system — and so on.

But a considerable body of modern scientific research suggests that cheese is getting a bum rap. Recent studies support the conclusion that cheese consumption offers the following benefits. It may lessen the risk of heart disease and contribute to improved dental health. Cheese may be beneficial to healthy sleep patterns and may even reduce the risk of diabetes. Let’s take a quick look at these possibilities.

On average, Americans consume about 30 pounds of cheese annually. The citizens of Greece and France, on the other hand, consume closer to 60 pounds per year. Epidemiological studies consistently establish the Greek and French populations experience relatively low incidence of cardiovascular disease. Though cheese consumption alone will not explain why Americans have higher rates of heart disease, there does seem to be a link.

Studies reported in 2000 and 2005 seem to indicate that cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss and American cheeses may help to prevent tooth decay. This may be because cheese contains high levels of calcium, which protects tooth enamel. Cheese also may increase saliva flow, which assists in washing away acids and sugars.

In 2005, the British Cheese Board conducted a study to determine the effect of cheese on sleep and dreaming. For two weeks, 200 subjects ate cheese before bed at night. The researchers concluded that cheese had a positive effect on the subjects’ sleep experience. This might be explained by the fact that cheese contains tryptophan, an amino acid that has been found to relieve stress and induce sleep.

The Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia, published a study in 2009 examining the effect of dietary cheese on weight loss. One group of subjects consumed three servings of cheese per day while another group consumed five per day. The researchers concluded that those who ate more cheese experienced a reduction in abdominal fat, lower blood pressure and lower blood sugar.

Earlier this year, British and Dutch researchers examined the diets of 16,800 healthy adults and 12,400 patients with Type II diabetes from eight European countries. Their findings were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Surprisingly, the researcher discovered that people who ate at least 55 g of cheese per day (about two slices) were 12 percent less likely to develop Type II diabetes.

This is great news to those of us who love cheese. We are now free to enjoy cheese in moderate amounts with the happy knowledge that it’s good for us.

Sadly, not everyone loves cheese. Notable author James Joyce, for example, says of cheese, “A corpse is meat gone bad. Well, and what’s cheese? Corpse of milk.” And it is true, some cheeses are too — exotic for most cheese lovers. Casu Marzu, for instance, is a Sardinian delicacy served wriggling and with live maggots. I’m really not sure how I’d feel about that.

But as we approach the holidays agonizing over which temptations to yield to, let’s keep in mind the sage advice of Jeremy Paxman, the noted British journalist. “The early bird may get the worm, but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.” I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.

MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.

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