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Max McCalman: Upset Tummy? It’s not the Cheese!

Health.com recently published a report in which the author recommends that cheese be avoided due to its lactose content. Apparently she has not done her homework on this topic. As most cheese people know, most all of the lactose is lost in the production and aging of most cheeses.

In one of the first steps of cheese making, the milk sours (which occurs naturally anyway) through the action of lactic acid bacteria – a beneficial bacteria found in milk which consumes lactose and converts it to lactic acid. In most cheese making today, starter cultures speed up this process, not for the elimination of lactose but to give the cheesemaker control of production and to yield the intended flavor profile in the cheese. The elimination of a significant portion of the lactose just happens to be an added benefit.

After this souring of the milk occurs a coagulant is added (rennet) which has little direct effect on the lactose but results in another opportunity for lactose elimination. Almost all cheeses are produced from the curds separated from the whey in the coagulation step. Most of the whey is eliminated and along with it, the bulk of the lactose is drained away.

The new cheese will continue to acidify gradually. This lowered pH level is one of several reasons why cheese enjoys a great track record for food safety. (The bad bacteria shun the more acid environments.)

The cheese will be virtually lactose free after just a few days of aging. Most everyone can tolerate that trace of lactose found in an aged cheese. The lactase (an enzyme that enables us to digest lactose) is not entirely lost in the digestive system as we move into adulthood.

Some people may have a low tolerance for other things found in cheese but lactose is most likely not the problem.

The article – Digestion: Which Foods Help and Hurt? – was well intended, I am sure. Yet it should be noted that there are several cheese components which actually aid digestion. One amino acid found in high concentration in cheese is Taurine. Though it is not technically an amino acid it is ofter referred to as an amino acid due to its functions, one of which that it acts as a building block of other enzymes, in this case for bile, which is needed for the digestion of fat. Cheese is also a good source for a couple of B vitamins: B2 and B3, both of which are involved in the metabolism of fats and proteins in our diets.

Many Europeans (and more and more Americans) choose to have cheese at the end of their meals. The enzymes in cheese help to break down the foods consumed earlier, as well as the cheese itself. One of several advantages in having cheese at the beginning of the meal is that it helps to prepare our tummies for the foods that we are about to consume. Cheese also has that satiety factor: with a little cheese before the meal we tend to eat less, which of course helps to prevent those tummy aches to begin with.

And besides, we are not talking about eating a lot of cheese here. There are enough of those tummy-ache-mitigating enzymes in just a little bit of cheese. We do not have to eat more of it to get those benefits.

It would benefit health.com if they looked at cheese a little more closely. Far too many pronouncements pop up denouncing cheese, and too few accolades. At least they mentioned that dairy is a good source of the all-important calcium.

Max McCalman’s Blog


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