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Christy Brissette, MSc, RD Headshot

A Love Letter To Cheese

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In the spirit of National Cheese Lovers' Day (also known as National Cheese Day) on January 20th, I write this love letter to one of my favourite foods.

Cheese is literally older than history as it's believed to have been made far before people kept records. Let that one sink in...

My fellow cheese enthusiasts and I revere cheese for its incredible taste and oozy goodness, and its ability to elevate any dish from good to the stuff dreams are made of. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, "Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese."

I know what you're thinking. How can a dietitian openly admit a love for cheese? Yes, it has saturated fat. Yes, it's packed with sodium. But it also fits into my 80 Twenty Nutrition eating plan.

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(Photo credit: Joy Ioto via Flickr).

Nutritional Benefits of Cheese

Cheese is an excellent source of protein, with one ounce (one slice or about 28 grams) packing seven grams (about the amount in one cup of milk or one egg).

Cheese is also rich in calcium, riboflavin and selenium. You probably know about calcium's role in bone strength but it also works hard to help our blood clot and muscles contract.

Riboflavin is a B vitamin that helps you turn food into fuel, break down fats and proteins, and also acts an antioxidant, preventing your body from free radical damage that can lead to aging and chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Selenium is another antioxidant that keeps your immune system in fighting shape.

One of the main reasons most health care providers will encourage cutting down on cheese is the amount and type of fat it contains. Most of the fat in cheese is saturated fat which is linked to higher risk of heart disease when consumed in large amounts. Canadian and American guidelines recommend we limit saturated fat to seven per cent of our calories each day. The validity of the belief that saturated fat is unhealthy has been called into question recently, causing people to take another look at the research.

I tell clients that among the good, the bad and the ugly, man-made trans fats are the ugliest type of fat you can eat. Cheese also contains trans fats, but not the kind you've been encouraged to avoid in processed foods.

Cheese contains ruminant trans fat which may offer health benefits. One of these fats is called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and research suggests it may help promote weight loss. CLA has also shown promise as a potential cancer-fighting, diabetes-preventing food.

I know what you're thinking... cheese, a weight loss food? Before you start melting cheese over everything, of course, we're talking about reasonable amounts. You may have heard of "the French paradox". Despite eating diets relatively high in saturated fats, France enjoys lower rates of coronary artery disease and tend to be slimmer than North Americans.

How is that possible? Well, we also know that in addition to enjoying cheese and foie gras, the French eat more fresh vegetables and fruit and less processed food, making their overall diets healthier than ours. So maybe the answer isn't more frozen pizza. It's more like a bit of brie with your roasted vegetables!

I often get asked about whether people should switch to low fat cheese. My response: if you like it, go for it. But I'll have clients that find low fat cheese so unsatisfying that they end up eating an entire brick of it rather than just a slice of the real thing. I say have a little bit of the real thing and really savour and enjoy it. If you choose flavourful cheese, a little goes a long way!

Deepen your love for cheese by making it... or watch it being made!

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(Photo credit: Scaddabush. Used with permission).

Turophiles (aka cheese lovers) around the world celebrate National Cheese Day with everything from fondue parties to cooking classes. In anticipation of the occasion, Executive Chef Steve Silvestro of Scaddabush Italian Kitchen and Bar gives me a hands-on lesson on how to make fresh mozzarella.

Using pressed local Ontario cheese curds, we chop the brick up into cubes and put them in a bowl of hot water.

We squish the chunks together into one glob of cheesy goodness, and then we pull it like taffy. The texture and stretchability reminds me of Silly Putty, complete with air bubbles. We stretch and fold the cheese back on itself to get rid of any lumps and bumps for a nice, smooth texture. Steve tells me we're looking for a sheen on the cheese. After a couple of stretches we see it glisten.

Now it's time to shape the mozzarella into a ball. Putting our left hands in a "C" shape, we use the other hand to push the cheese through so it creates a smooth, perfect ball. Then it goes right into an ice bath before it's ready to be plated and enjoyed. You can see Steve and I in action making our mozzarella balls in this video I shared on Instagram.

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Being the food science and nutrition nerd that I am, I'm focused on the science throughout the process. So cheese curds are essentially casein, (protein) and fat. Once you add the cheese to the hot water, you can see a bit of the fat coming out. The heat denatures the protein in the cheese so it changes shape, taking our cheese from squeaky curd a la poutine to layers of smooth mozzarella. Putting the cheese into an ice bath causes the proteins to lose their flexibility so they are shocked into staying put.

If you'd like to try making fresh mozzarella at home (and it is good fun), Steve recommends sourcing mozzarella curds from a specialty cheese shop. You can even speak to the dairy to get curds with lower salt content. At Scaddabush, the fresh mozzarella has very little salt in it, but is plated with flakes of Kosher salt so you can adjust it to taste. This is great if you're watching your sodium intake.

If you want to see mozzarella making live, head over to Scaddabush. Your cheese is made to order, and the chef will do it right in front of you. Now that's a real foodie experience!

How do you plan to celebrate National Cheese Day? Share your plan on my Facebook page and follow the entry guidelines here for a chance to win a $250 gift card for Scaddabush!

Disclosure: Christy received a gift card from Scaddabush to give away as a prize to readers.

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