The command “Say cheese,” is a phrase so commonly used to elicit a smile that today it is understood from the simple imperative; “Cheese!” But prior to the 1940s, such photographic cajolery was unknown. Indeed, in the preceding Victorian era the desirable beauty standard was considered a tightly pursed orbicularis oris muscle. Whether because of poor dentition, or the prim and proper societal norms of the time, or some combination of both; smiles were only for children, peasants and drunks.
And until very recently, the prevailing conventional wisdom for healthy eating relegated consuming cheese to a failing of the ignorant, simple or misguided. From the late 1940s through the 1970s there was a mandate from the experts and powers that be to consume less fat and particularly saturated fat; principally those derived from animal sources such as meat, poultry and dairy. That admonishment has continued to echo and drive our poor culinary choices over the ensuing half-century like an unresolved daddy issue.
An uncomplicated historical glance would have revealed that a modest, living, fermented food like real cheese had helped sustain and advance human kind across civilizations and across the globe. While a large portion of the world’s population is lactose intolerant and therefore unable to consume or potentially benefit from raw or fresh milk products; cheeses and particularly aged cheeses are an exception.
The milk sugar, or lactose is utilized by beneficial bacteria; Lactobacillus comes to mind. Along with the fats, most of which are saturated, and proteins, and through the process of fermentation; raw milk undergoes the transformation from raw milk product to cheese. As certain cheeses age, there is often less lactose present; so much so that for many – even those who are lactose intolerant and unable to tolerate fresh milk– such delicious pillows of probiotic loaded goodness can be enjoyed.
For the last half century, real cheeses have been discounted as part of a healthful approach to eating primarily because of their saturated fat and cholesterol content. While the Mediterranean diet was promoted as an ideal dietary model, the dairy aspect of this gastronomy was shoved into a corner where it lingered and mouldered.
Often unappreciated, is the historical fact that fermented dairy had a long and prominent place in ancient diets such as the Mediterranean. This is because while fresh milk can be consumed, it is quite perishable and much more valuable as a raw material. Raw milk can be turned into several products like cream, butter, yogurts, kefir, whey and cheese; all of which have a substantially longer shelf life.
Cheese reemerged from the shadows with the insights gleaned from the French paradox of the 1990s. The French, who drank wine and consumed butter, cream and over 100 different kinds of cheese, most of which are oh-so-stinky good; all these tasty bits that were verboten in the US at the time, had significantly less cardiovascular disease. It turns out it was more than the wine.
A dietary approach like Mediterranean style cuisine, rich in natural, wholesome, and fermented foods, has been shown to reduce generalized inflammation and stress. Oxidative stress and inflammation play major roles in the onset and development of the diabetes and its precursor, metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is diagnosed by the presence of central obesity and at least two of the following four additional factors: high triglycerides, low HDL or “good” cholesterol, high blood pressure, or increased fasting plasma glucose concentration.
Data from the recent European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study examined 16,835 healthy and 12,403 diabetic participants from 8 European nations. The researchers found an inverse association between cheese, fermented dairy consumption, and the incidence of diabetes. Eating only 55 g/d total of cheese and/or yogurt was associated with a 12% reduction in the incidence of type 2 diabetes.
A new study just released revealed that just 30 g daily of a Parmesan-like Italian cheese, Grana Padano, lowered blood pressure as effectively as the typically prescribed antihypertensive pharmaceutical. This occurred, even though the cheese contained the equivalent amount of sodium that would be found in consuming a 1 ounce serving of potato chips.
Previous studies had isolated some particular tripeptides in certain types of cheese and demonstrated a relationship to being able to lower blood pressure. These particular compounds are formed through the interaction of human gastrointestinal enzymes and the gut microbiota.
These peptide complexes have angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibiting properties. Such ACE inhibitors constitute an important class of medications that not only lower blood pressure, but are a foundation of therapy from those suffering from cardiomyopathy or congestive heart failure from a variety of causes.
Another study examined almost 20,000 participants. It examined the association between cheese consumption in various age groups and circulating concentrations of HDL or “good” cholesterol and triglycerides, a negative risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The more cheese consumed the higher the HDL and the lower the triglycerides. The researchers suggested that this was the result of the particular fatty acid composition of cheese and its inherent, probiotic, bacterial content.
The high protein and probiotic content of cheese is also believed to contribute to its almost neutral effect on plasma cholesterol. Even though cheese is high in cholesterol and saturated fat, like so many other such natural foodstuffs, its impact on blood lipids and total cholesterol is negligible. Some kinds of cheeses, namely those infected with Penicillium such as Roquefort, Stilton, or Gorgonzola, exhibit high concentrations of andrastins A, B, C, and D.
These are potent inhibitors of the enzyme farnesyltransferase. This enzyme plays a key role in cholesterol synthesis and its inhibition decreases cholesterol production. In fact, while the total cholesterol is overall minimally unchanged, some studies suggest that consuming these types of foods shift the cholesterol towards the less inflammatory, less atherogenic type.
An interesting observation arises from these studies. The decrease in oxidative stress and inflammation markers is independent of body weight. Eating fat does not make you fat. Nor are the benefits simply the result of losing weight or caloric considerations. The healthful effects also occur quite rapidly which suggests not just a correlation, but a causation.
Oligosaccharides which are also present in cheeses are prebiotics. This is the food that sustains a healthy gut microbiota. It is what feeds the wee beasties. Cheeses, which contain both prebiotics and probiotics become that gut microbiome superfood; a synbiotic.
Another recently completed study demonstrated the cheese consumption directly altered the gut microbiome in an extremely favorable way. Certain gut bacteria are associated with the production of a compound known as trimethylamine–N–oxide or TMAO. The bacteria produce this compound in response to the dietary ingestion of choline. Levels of TMAO have been found to correlate and are directly predictive of cardiovascular risk.
The consumption of cheese rapidly altered the composition of the gut microbiome. There was significantly less TMAO produced. The positive changes to the gut microbiome associated with the regular consumption of such a powerful, wholesome, naturally fermented, synbiotic food as cheese may explain the relatively low incidence of cardiovascular disease in high cheese consumption countries.
Canned smiles and canned cheese don’t cut it. For that unique stinky goodness and real wellbeing, only real cheese is the real deal. Smile, and cut the cheese.