One thing most of the recent diet trends have in common is a focus on protein and healthy fats. Low-carb diets — for example the ketogenic diet; various iterations of the paleo diet, the return of the low-glycemic index diet, all encourage replacing most of the refined carbohydrates (specifically flours, sugars, and starches) with protein.
While some of these low-carb/hi-pro trends might be used as nothing more than an excuse to put bacon in everything, processors who take seriously the designing of better-for-you products to conform to these diet trends are finding cheese to be a viable, versatile, flavorful, and economic feature player.
Cheese is a compact, nutritionally dense source of easily metabolized, highly bioavailable protein food. The amount of protein typically is around 40–60%, with the balance of calories coming from a mixture of heart- and brain-healthy omega fatty acids, various saturated fats, and MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides).
With a wave of recent research revising what we know about dietary fat and health, American consumers are less about avoiding fat and calories and more about seeking out the foods that not only contain these vital and satisfying components but also provide high satiety, long-lasting energy and, most of all, flavorful pleasure.
For diets that promote healthy protein and fat, cheese could even be said to be essential. It is one of the few foods that can provide a natural source of the aforementioned protein and healthy fats but also important micronutrients, including vitamins, minerals, including vitamins A, B12, D, and K, and calcium, phosphorous, and zinc. Some cheese are rich sources of probiotic bacteria. And recent research has suggested that, as a high-calcium food, cheese could function as a prebiotic, feeding the beneficial microbes that already thrive in the digestive tract.
One of the healthful omega fatty acids in cheese is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA is a polyunsaturated fat that has gained attention for its ability to aid in weight loss. Not only is the weight loss a result of reducing body fat, there also have been studies suggesting that CLA can actually help the body build muscle in place of the fat. Other studies have yielded evidence that CLA helps lower the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.
Cheese is a good fit for the vegetarian trend. Although not on the menu for vegans, vegetarians who include dairy find in dairy cheese a great source of the aforementioned vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients. These nutrients are in minimal supply in vegan and many vegetarian diets. In fact, vegetarians open to consuming dairy products (lactovegetarians) will discover that cheese can be the difference between a healthy and a hijacked diet plan.
Cheese can conform to stricter vegetarian parameters when made without animal rennet. Some parmesan cheeses, soft goat cheese (chévre), some blue cheeses, brine-cured feta, ricotta, and fresh mozzarella are commonly free of animal rennet.
When it comes to bioavailable forms of protein, the more a cheese has aged (think parmesan), the higher its protein and bioavailability per ounce. The main protein in cheese, casein, is particularly beneficial because it digests slowly, gradually releasing its amino acids—the building blocks of protein—into the bloodstream. This is why cheese, despite having a concentrated caloric value per ounce, is actually a dieter’s best friend: Its high satiety reduces hunger for hours.
Cheese also provides a full complement of 20 amino acids, including the nine essential ones that can’t be made by the body and must come from food. The amino acid profile among most cheeses is similar and well-balanced, but some aged cheeses tend to have a higher percentage of lysine, tyrosine, and tryptophan.
Food manufacturers seeking a nimble ingredient to build new healthy lifestyle products will find cheese a versatile, satisfying, comforting, and on-trend ingredient that can take center stage or a strong supporting role.