Why your low-fat cheese tastes nasty: Ottawa protects farmers, not consumers

Below is an oped I wrote which was published on October 31, 1017 in the National Post (Financial Post section) newspaper. It deals with the unacceptable regulations concerning the making of lower fat cheeses.

But first, a few thoughts on Health Canada and the new food guide:

There is something truly ground breaking about Health Canada’s proposals for the new Canada’s Food Guide. For the first time, Health Canada has put forth recommendations that were created free of influences from food lobby groups.

Unfortunately these good intentions are hampered by other government agencies and food lobby groups which influence consumers’ eating habits by impacting the products on grocery store shelves.

Case in point: dairy products.

Your low-fat cheese tastes nasty because Ottawa protects farmers, not consumers

Dairy laws must be changed to make cheese palatable to Canadian consumers rather than to dairy farmers

Health Canada’s latest proposals for the new “Canada’s Food Guide” laudably recommend eating lower-fat cheeses rather than full fat ones, but that may be a difficult guideline for Canadians to swallow. Low-fat cheeses can be ghastly. They’re often dry and very rubbery. Because of this, colleagues of mine now suggest that their clients eat smaller portions of higher-fat cheeses. But it’s not necessarily the nature of low-fat cheese to taste bad. The laws set out by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency bring us unpalatable products.

Now if you’re thinking you should simply eat cheese less frequently but go for full fat, think about what’s in cheese. It’s packed with a whole host of nutrients- protein, calcium, magnesium, potassium and more so to save it for a once or twice a week treat can shortchange you. Saving the full fat cheese for once or twice a week as a treat makes sense. But if we can have great tasting nutrition packed cheese for every day, why not include it?

Normally it’s the dairy fat that gives cheese a delicious mouthfeel and texture. But years ago, as consumers were looking for lower-fat alternatives, cheese makers were becoming more creative. To increase the palatability of these lower-fat cheeses, they were adding ingredients such as milk solids and whey, a byproduct of cheese making. By adding these milk products to the mix when making cheese, the end products had a better texture and mouthfeel. These lower-fat cheeses actually tasted good. Newer products started hitting the market. They also contained higher amounts of the beneficial nutrients dairy products are known for, such as calcium and magnesium.

But then the government, about a decade ago, changed all this. The problem: These low-fat products were trimming dairy farmers’ profits. Using higher-fat fluid milk in the process, rather than milk solids and whey, results in higher compensation for the farmers. So the new regulation stipulated that the whey-to-casein ratio in cheese must be the same as is naturally found in fluid milk. This meant that cheese makers had to add higher-fat milk to make cheese and could no longer add milk solids or whey. These cheese-making regulations triggered outcries from cheese producers, health experts and consumer groups alike.

While farmers were happy, others understandably were not. Lower-fat cheeses were, once again, not very tasty. Making matters worse, they now cost more.

Good-tasting and health-promoting should go hand in hand. In Israel, lower-fat cheeses are rich and creamy and delicious in their own right. While Israel does have the same regulations dealing with whey and casein ratios, they are not enforced. Dr. Tova Avrech, Chief Health Officer at the Israel Dairy Board, says “Milk components such as whey are used in cheese making as they provide softness to the cheese.” She adds that they also substitute for the mouthfeel of fat.

In addition, she notes that the standards for cheese requiring the same whey-to-casein ratio as is found in fluid milk are old ones that need to be updated. Yet, here we are in Canada using them to benefit farmers while shortchanging Canadians in terms of nutrition.

Disposing of the excess whey is also a concern, since simply dumping it on farmland or in bodies of water can create environmental issues.

As a dietitian, I am really encouraged by the ideas that Health Canada has proposed for the new guide but guidelines are just one step. The food products that are available to Canadians must support the recommendations. This means changing dairy laws so that the result is palatable to Canadian consumers-not just dairy farmers.

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Categories: Rosie's Rants

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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