America’s Love Affair With Cheese


English: Individually wrapped slices of Americ...

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Why is America so obsessed with cheese, and when did this happen? In the good old days when I was a kid, cheese was something we put on pizza, and occasionally on hamburgers, but usually did not. Why cover up the juicy taste of the burger with slippery, cheesy cheese? Plus, ordering cheese on your burger in a restaurant cost extra, and we were practical people who did not spend extra money on something we had at home in the refrigerator, that we could eat anytime we wanted for almost nothing.

And there, in part, lies the answer – restaurants put cheese on everything because they can charge more for it. Remember the catch phrase “you want fries with that?” We don’t get asked that as much, because now we have “combo meals” which automatically include the fries and two-gallon cup of soda. Now in order to up-sell, we have to ask the question “do you want cheese on that?”

Now I have nothing against cheese. Cheese is in fact yummy. Cheese consumption keeps cows and dairy farmers in business. Cheese gives us calcium and protein. Cheese also gives us calories.  Lots of them.  The calories come mainly from fat, which by the way, also gives us cholesterol. Fat content varies among different cheeses, depending upon the amount and kind of milk used in its production.

“The fat content of cheeses varies widely, mainly because of the type of milk (e.g., whole, reduced fat, non-fat) and milk product (e.g., cream) used to make cheese. Non-fat cottage cheese contains less than 0.5 g per 4-ounce serving, whereas a serving of Cheddar cheese (1.5 oz.) contains 14 g of fat. A high-fat cheese, such as cream cheese, is always enriched with cream and as such contains a greater proportion of fat than protein. Cheeses such as Cheddar, Brie, blue, Limburger, Muenster, Gouda, and Swiss are generally made from whole milk and have about the same amount of fat and protein.” http://www.nationaldairycouncil.org/NationalDairyCouncil/Nutrition/Products/cheesePage5.htm

Are we Americans really eating more cheese now than we did in the good old days, aka when I was a kid? The answer seems to be a resounding yes.

“Average U.S. cheese consumption nearly tripled between 1970 and 2003, from 11 pounds per person to 31 pounds. In 2000 (the latest year for which nutrient data are available), cheese contributed 26 percent of the calcium in the U.S. diet (up from 11 percent in 1970), 12 percent of the saturated fat (up from 5 percent in 1970), and 16 percent of the sodium (up from 6 percent in 1970).” http://www.ers.usda.gov/amberwaves/february05/findings/CheeseConsumption.htm

The most commonly used cheese in America seems to be so-called “American cheese”,  those slices that come in individual cellophane wrappings, which I’m sure contribute to clogging up our landfills with plastic, a topic for another time. American cheese is not really cheese at all, but processed cheese. Processed cheese, also called cheese food, cheese product, or cheese spread, is made by taking scraps of cheese left over from cheese manufacturing, and adding emulsifiers, preservatives, water, salt, artificial coloring  and artificial flavor, to form a somewhat palatable, cheese-like substance, that holds up well to cooking temperatures, and has a long shelf-life. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Processed_cheese)

So Americans are basically becoming fat by eating the cheese industry’s leftover scraps, fluffed up with artificial flavors, and colors, the veritable “chicken nuggets” of the cheese industry.

I am allergic to dairy foods, so I find the American obsession with cheese particularly vexing. Try to go to a restaurant and order something that doesn’t have cheese on it. Appetizers? Again, another ploy to make people fat, and food that definitely should be avoided. But say you worked out hard today and can handle an appetizer without going over your daily calorie budget. What are the choices? Potato skins, bruschetta, nachos, mozzarella sticks, all cheese, cheese, cheese. Most salads come with some kind of cheese, and when I find one that I think will not have cheese, but ask just to make sure, I’m always assured that they will be happy to put cheese on it. Many entrees that are not a good old hunk of meat, have cheese in some form – sprinkled on top, in a sauce, or mixed in with the other ingredients. Pasta, which I once thought was safe with its tomato-based sauce, will almost always have cheese sprinkled on top, and often added to the sauce.

Try this experiment – try to go a week, a month or a year without eating cheese. Recently others have parlayed this trend into literary achievements, by choosing to behave a certain way or go without something for a year, then writing about it.  A.J. Jacobs wrote The Year of Living Biblically, a hilarious recounting of his year spent living as closely as possible to Biblical rules. Sara Bongiorni wrote A Year Without Made in China, in which the author and her family spent a year (with much difficulty) trying to only purchase items that were not made in China.

Start by doing this: go to a restaurant. Try to order an appetizer, entrée and dessert that do not include cheese (including cream cheese – no cheesecake for you!) Then try it in a fast-food restaurant – this gets more difficult. Then a pizza restaurant.  Okay, you can have cheese on the pizza, but not more than once a week, and no extra cheese, no cheese crust, and no bread sticks (they are usually sprinkled with cheese). Do this repeatedly. After awhile, you’ll feel fatigued from asking if (insert menu item here) has cheese on it, and fending off aggressive server’s attempts to add cheese for you. Then go another week, and another. Do the same at home – no cheese and nachos, no cheese on salad, no mac and cheese, ravioli, “Hot pockets”, pizza pockets,  and so on. If you tend to be on the overweight side, I bet you’ll start to notice a dip on the scale, without making any other changes in your lifestyle, except for going cheese-free.  Post your comments on the no-cheese challenge and how it affected you.

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