Niki Bezzant: Life is too sad without cheese

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Photo / Girls' Sheds Tour.
Photo / Girls' Sheds Tour.

I would find it very hard to be vegan. Although I am a big fan of plant-based eating, I also enjoy meat, chicken and fish and I appreciate their nutritional benefits.

But I think the main reason I couldn't be vegan is cheese. A life without cheese (and let's not consider "cashew cheese" as even in the same category) would feel a sad, pale and tasteless life to me.

This has been brought home to me very recently, having had the opportunity to participate in the judging of the New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards; the Oscars of our cheese community.

Cheesemakers are thriving here; the competition drew more than 420 entries, many of outstanding quality.

Cheese is a fascinating food. It was created thousands of years ago as a way of preserving milk in a pre-refrigeration era.

A natural fermented product, cheese has fundamentally been made the same way ever since, even though there's a lot more technology applied to it these days.

In our modern diet, cheese is hero and villain. It's banned if you're vegan or paleo (one of the few things those two groups would have in common) and it's off the list if you have a dairy allergy. People who are lactose intolerant only need to limit fresh cheese; they can eat hard cheeses, as these have virtually no lactose - the milk sugar.

Health-wise, cheese has in the past been lumped in with other animal products containing saturated fat, which we are advised to limit. But the story is getting more nuanced these days as research into dairy continues.

A strong body of evidence links saturated fat intake with an increased risk of heart disease, emerging evidence suggests the saturated fat in dairy foods, including cheese, might not be harmful. Some studies have found higher intakes of even regular-fat dairy to be protective against heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Scientists don't really know yet why that is. It might be that other components of dairy - beneficial nutrients such as vitamin D, potassium, phosphorus and calcium - counterbalance the negative effects of saturated fat.

Or it might be other confounding factors: things study participants did or ate that made them healthier than non-dairy eaters. The science is continuing in this area, but it's looking positive for cheese lovers so far.

Of course, cheese is energy dense. Because it's a higher-fat food, it packs a lot of kilojoules into a small serving. A 20g slice of cheddar cheese (a couple of crackers' worth) has about 320kJ, so although it's a good snack, it's easy to see how we could overdo it.

Cheese has useful amounts of calcium - as a general rule of thumb the harder the cheese, the more calcium. In 20g cheddar, there's around 150mg calcium.

So the message here, once again, is moderation. Choose your favourite beautiful New Zealand cheese and savour it, if you can, in moderate doses.

Niki Bezzant is editor in chief of Healthy Food Guide.

- Herald on Sunday

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