The following questions are frequently asked, so here are some answers for all to see. These are based on information and experience gathered over fifty-one years in the specialty food business, and they are the opinion of the Cheese Shop.

Are there any low-fat cheeses?

Yes, some low-fat cheeses are available today. Unfortunately, most have about the same appeal as non-alcoholic wines. It has been our experience that when sampled, most customers are disappointed. I would be sure to try before you buy.

As a side note, many people buy cheeses labeled part-skim milk because they think they are getting a low-fat cheese. In reality, if any butterfat is removed from the whole milk it has to be labeled “made from partially skimmed milk”. This is done by the cheese maker because of the different levels of butterfat found in milk. Jersey cows (brown and white in color), for example, have a much higher butterfat content than Holsteins (black and white in color), and produce a lower volume of milk per day.

In order to maintain consistency, a cheese maker needs to start with the same amount of butterfat every time. Therefore, he might need to “skim” the milk at times to achieve this. So it would technically be possible to produce a “partially skim milk” cheese that contains a higher butterfat content than one made from whole milk, depending on what breed of cow is used. You need to read the label and see what the fat content is. Many people are familiar with the Norwegian cheese Jarlsberg, which is labeled as a semi-soft, part-skim cheese. Its butterfat content is about 45%, which is the same as most whole milk cheeses. Jarlsberg makers also produce a low-fat version called Jarlsberg Lite, but you can really taste the lack of butterfat in that version.

Are there any low-salt cheeses available?

I am often asked about the salt content in cheese, and if there are any “low-salt” cheeses available that taste good. The answer is no.

Shall I go on?

Just about everything tastes better with salt.  It is probably the best additive to any food, and thus plays a more important role than any other herb or spice. In addition to having its own taste, salt also enhances other taste sensations, such as sweetness. Salt intensifies the sweet taste of many foods, which explains why many chocolates are now sprinkled with salt. Our most popular chocolate truffles are Sea Salt Caramels. The proper amount of salt can also reduce bitterness in foods. Unfortunately, lowering salt in cheese production often produces a bitter taste and poor shelf life, as low salt cheeses mold much quicker.

Salt has been used for centuries as a means to preserve food and cure meats. It was used long before modern refrigerators were invented. Basically, salt stops bacteria growth by drawing out moisture from various foods products, inhibiting bacterial growth and food poisoning.

In cheese production, salt will draw out moisture and dehydrate cheese when introduced to curds. This forms a natural rind. Without salt, this cannot be achieved. Depending on the recipe for a specific cheese or how long a cheese is intended to be aged before consumption, salt quantities will vary. The longer the time for aging and the thicker the rind, the more salt is needed.

Salt can be introduced by different methods. It can be added directly to the curd, or whole cheeses can be given a salt (or brine) bath. Several brine baths may be used during production and continued later, as part of the preservation process. Salt can also be simply rubbed on the rind.

The following chart shows the salt content and calories (in most cases) in many popular cheeses.

             Cheese                                    Milk type        Sodium in mg (1 oz)          Calories (1 oz)      

            Appenzeller                             Raw                             170                             110

Bucheron                                 Pasteurized                   50                               70

Chaumes                                 Pasteurized                 220                               90

Delice de Argental                  Pasteurized                 220                              115

Emmenthaler Swiss                 Raw                              50                              120

English Coastal Cheddar         Pasteurized                 200                             120

Fromage D’Affinois                 Pasteurized                 170                               90

Gruyere (Swiss)                       Raw                             160                             120

Manchego                               Raw                            170                             120

Parmigiano Stravecchio          Raw                             450                             111

Piave Vecchio                          Pasteurized                 214                             131

Stilton                                      Pasteurized                220                              110

Vlaskaas Beemster                  Pasteurized                 227                              110

XO Beemster                           Pasteurized                 237                             120

Processed Cheese                                                     340

 My solution is the same one I give for those looking for low-fat cheese. Eat the cheese you like but eat half as much, and you have just created the perfect low-fat, low-salt cheese.

Are there any lactose-free cheeses?

 Many people assume they are lactose intolerant and therefore cannot eat cheese. Others are allergic to dairy products. You need to find out whether you are lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy; there is a difference.

For those of you who have been diagnosed as lactose intolerant, there might be good news. Let’s first define lactose intolerance, which is an inability to digest lactose sugar in milk. In order to understand this, let’s look at milk and cheese-making. Cow’s milk is approximately 87% water, 3-5% fat, 3 1/2 % protein, 5% milk sugar and an assortment of vitamins and minerals. Lactose is the main sugar, and it is made up of dextrose and galactose. Digesting is the process of splitting the lactose into these two sugars. This is accomplished with the help of an enzyme produced naturally in humans called lactase. Lactase ferments and becomes lactic acid. Some people cannot create lactase, hence the problem. Symptoms can include bloating, cramps and even diarrhea.

I have always heard that some people have less trouble digesting goat or sheep milk cheese. There does not seem to be concrete evidence to support that one type of milk is easier to digest over another. However, it has been discovered that goat’s milk is “homogenized naturally,” which means fat particles stay suspended in milk, making them easier to digest. In cow’s milk, fat particles separate from the milk and become harder to digest. As a kid, I can remember shaking cow’s milk because all of the fat was at the top.

People have different reactions to various foods, so it is best to see what works for you. If you do have a problem, it could be a dairy allergy and not lactose intolerance. Fat content varies among animals. Cow’s milk has a slightly higher amount of lactose than goat’s milk. However, in its concentrated cheese form the difference is insignificant.

When most cheeses are made, the milk separates into curds and whey. When the whey is drained from the curd, most of the sugars (lactose) are as well, leaving a concentrated delight known as cheese. Cheese is approximately 95% lactose free. This means that 95% of the original 5% of lactose found in milk is discarded. Most lactose remaining in the curd is converted into lactic acid. This even gets better, the longer a cheese is aged the more moisture loss, leaving even less lactose.

Most cheeses that are 6 months or older become lactose-free. Examples of this would be most aged goudas like Beemster Vlaskaas or Beemster XO. The exception to this would be cheeses that are made with whey, such as fresh ricotta or basket cheese. Younger cheeses, like brie and camembert, have a higher moisture content and will contain higher percentages of lactose. Fortunately, however, they are still 95% lactose free.

When in doubt, eat aged cheese or eat in small portions until you can determine just how much cheese you can digest without issue.

Frequent Asked Questions: Part I
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