Served: Is Cheese Good for You?


Hannah Howard has worked in several restaurants, but she's made the switch to the grocery side of the industry. She's now a cheesemonger for a small market chain, and will share her experience here.

20080616-servedbug.jpgPeople are afraid of cheese. It's usually older customers who ask about low calorie, low fat, or low sodium cheese. My coworker is from Italy, and no amount of fat free cheddar-buying ladies can help him wrap his head around this "light" cheese phenomenon.

"It doesn't make any sense. Cheese is fat," he ponders. "Fat free cheese is like meat-free beef!"

"Haven't you been downstairs?" I ask. There are aisles of "meat substitutes." But that's a different story.

Is Cheese Good?

In my book, it doesn't matter if something is healthy if it's not also delicious. Cheese fits the delicious bill.

Or the good stuff, anyway. When customers want to try or buy raw milk Morbier, a bite of its ashy, funky, smoothness always finds its way to my mouth. Same goes for the hay-y, musky Tomme Crayeuse, the butterscotchy Ewephoria sheeps' milk gouda, and the still-warm salty, milky strands of just made mozzarella.

When we're slicing a big wheel or block of industrial cheese—maybe a Wisconsin cheddar, an amply peppercorned pecorino, Havarti with dill—I sometimes think to myself, "What is this stuff, anyway?" and I will endeavor to find out. After spending my days nibbling on cheeses with layers and layers of flavors, these cheeses taste how they look: plasticy, rubbery, and the opposite of appealing.

No surprise for a cheese lover and newly minted cheesemonger to come out as an unabashed cheese snob. But it's not just me, I promise. Even the guys who mop the floors know the good stuff from the regular stuff.

My conclusion: Good cheese is very, very good. I won't waste my money, time, or calories on the rest.

Is Cheese Healthy?

Americans get a hefty dose of their saturated fat (too much) from cheese. We're eating more cheese than ever. But that's "cheese" as in cheese food and cheese product. These foods are a far cry from the original cheeses that monks and moms have been making for centuries from milk and rennet. And this cheesy stuff happens often in enormous doses, melted on pizzas and burgers and tacos. In other words, not the healthiest meals.

My former boss used to say that cheese is the perfect food—that people could live on cheese, apples, and perhaps a bit of wine, and be perfectly nourished. Cheese is indeed a complete protein: it contains the right proportions of amino acids to give our bodies their protein fix. Cheese is bursting with calcium, Vitamin A, and folate.

But cheese is really calorically dense, and full of fat (which our bodies need! But not too much!), and so for this reason scares people concerned about health and weight. The answer is unsexy but: everything in moderation.

This is where great cheese comes in. A little Bianco Sardo shaved on gnocchi or scrambled eggs is enough for a hit of flavor and salt and depth. Some Stinking Bishop smeared on a baguette will give your nose and mouth a big enough bang that you won't need to go back for more.

But I think it's a bit easy to say that quality will kill the urge for quantity. That ripe camembert is begging me to take another bite or three, and four-year gouda exhibits the same addictive quality as chocolate chip cookies.

Is Cheese Good for Me?

After toying with urging: "eat more cheese! enjoy it!" I decided against it. I believe that diet and health are ultimately personal endeavors, and everyone must discover what works best for them. I have no authority to deliver mandates about anyone's cheese consumption but my own. So I set out instead to answer instead: "Is cheese good for me?"

I keep reading about the evils of dairy, which made me question my cheese-loving ways. I eat very little meat, so cheese is a big source of protein for me. More importantly, it makes me happy.

For me, cheesy days are better than cheese-less days. My lunch at work is often something like: a crunchy apple, some cherry tomatoes, ooey Langres or a chunk of cave aged gruyere, and a piece of dark chocolate. This brings my mouth and belly joy, and gives me energy to get through a day wrapping mountains of parmesan.

I have one more week behind the cheese counter, and I intend to spend it reveling in sweet, fresh ricotta and mellow Piave. Maybe after months or years, I'd start to tire from cheese lunches and snacks. But I'll ride the wave for now.

All this cheese consumption has not yet caused any suffering or weight gain or loss of vitality, and I've developed a whole deep appreciation for the exquisite world of great dairy.