Thu, Jan-16-20, 02:12
The irresistible allure of cheese
The irresistible allure of cheese: why it really is the opium of foods
Boris Johnson says he can’t go vegan because he loves cheese too much — and he’s not alone. Michael Odell explores the science of our addiction
For the first time I can remember I had some sympathy for Boris Johnson when yesterday he finally admitted how weak he had been in the face of overwhelming temptation. He confessed in a BBC Breakfast interview that he couldn’t go vegan because he would never be able to give up cheese. Believe me, he is not the first man who, confronted with creamy French curds, had found himself unable to go through with Brie-xit.
I am 55. I know cheese is probably not very good for my heart. But once I’ve launched into creamy Somerset cheddar I find it hard to take back control. When my children were young enough to need packed lunches I used to steal their Babybels. Under duress at a stressful children’s party I wasn’t above gnawing away at those godawful Cheestrings either.
But the kids have grown up. I have four daughters aged between 16 and 22, one veggie, one vegan. All are calorie-counting cheese-sceptics. They watch me hack into a crumbling Wensleydale and pair it with a good wine with barely concealed horror.
For me, there is something atavistic in the craving for fermented curds that goes much deeper than mere greed. The possibility that cheese may be as addictive as crack cocaine has been explored before. In 2015 500 people polled for the Yale Food Addiction Scale reported that pizza was their most addictive food, largely as a result of its cheese content.
Paul Thomas is a biochemist, cheese-making instructor and technical adviser to the dairy industry. He says there are good reasons why cheese feels so viscerally desirable. “Within cheese there is a protein called casein and during its digestion opiate-like compounds called casomorphins are produced,” he says. “There is evidence to suggest that these bond with the brain’s opiate-receptors in much the same way as a drug like heroin does.
But as for actually being addictive, when you drill down into the numerous studies, cheese really doesn’t exert the same dependence as an opiate drug. Cheese is complex-tasting, nutritious and delicious, but I’ve yet to come across anyone sitting in a shop doorway rocking back and forth suffering withdrawal symptoms.”
The almost erotic allure of a good cheese makes sense on an evolutionary level. Like other mammals we are raised on our mother’s breast milk. A suckling infant soon establishes a love of casein and its presence is seven times greater in a mature cheese. Furthermore, it may be illogical, given our sedentary and mostly well-fed modern lives, but is it possible that the pleasure of a good cheese simply reflects our body’s gratitude for highly nutritious fat and protein, especially when set against our ancient fear of harsh Stone Age winters?
“I have doubts that an appetite for cheese specifically has been inherited down the ages,” says Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford and the author of Gastrophysics: the New Science of Eating. “We simply don’t have the DNA bandwidth to inherit a love of specific foods. It’s true we taste sugar and umami in the womb, and we later experience those again in cheese. I think it’s more likely it’s simply because it pairs well with other foods, and is complex and nutritious to eat.”
What is unusual, Spence says, is that over the centuries humans have been willing to take extreme risks to access smelly cheeses. And no, he doesn’t mean invading France.
“Humans have evolved to fear things that smell bad with good reason,” he says. “After all, centuries ago, before doctors and the NHS, foul-smelling foods might have had terrible health consequences. But cheese is one of the few foods where humans didn’t heed that warning.
“For example, most people are revolted by the smell of vomit and yet we eat parmesan. The vomit smell is caused by the presence of isovaleric acid, but once we know that a cheese is producing the smell rather than vomit, brain imaging shows we switch from registering disgust to pleasure. We are prepared to reassess initial fear because we remember there is a treat in store. That is the power of cheese.”
Nevertheless, for a new generation the fromagier’s dream seems to be curdling. According to Mintel, a market research company, mass cheese consumption is flat. In terms of growth, no one seems to know the whey. My 22-year-old daughter is a boisterous vegan who has dumped cheese as a cruel, unhealthy animal derivative. We quite often sit opposite each other in a postprandial cheese-off, me with my Wensleydale, she eating slices of something called “courgette cheese”. It’s pale green and has the consistency of cellulite (a comparison she claims not to understand on account of being so slim and healthy). However, according to Mintel, it is my daughter’s vegan substitutes that are showing potential for growth.
On the other hand, the Specialist Cheesemakers Association (SCA) reports that 2019 was a boom year for small artisan producers. “If you are producing really high-quality specialist cheese then you cannot make it fast enough,” Sian Oliver-Gay from the SCA says. “Even young vegetarians are willing to spend more money on really good cheese because they know it gives them nutrition and flavour they might be missing elsewhere. And producers are happy to make very fine cheeses without animal rennet for them. Many small cheese producers report that vegetarianism is actually helping them.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Johnson is backing traditional cheese. He denounced veganism as “a crime against cheese lovers” and it turns out in this he may be right. In 2017 the European Court of Justice ruled that plant-based foods should not be labelled as milk, cream, butter, yoghurt or cheese after Tofutown, a German company, tried to sell a plant-based substitute labelled as “veggie cheese”.
“I hope the government sticks with that ruling at the end of the month [when the UK leaves the EU] because it’s a travesty,” Thomas says. “If people are worried about the fat content of cheese, there are many ways of mitigating that while remaining inside the wider cheese tent. Cottage cheese has a higher water content and therefore less fat, so they could try that. In fact, if you ask most people to guess which contains more fat — parmesan or brie — then they would probably choose the latter.
“But brie is 50 per cent moisture and has less fat than parmesan, which is about 30 per cent moisture. The other misconception is that runny cheeses like camembert and brie are as fatty as butter. That’s not true. They have about a third of the fat. But please, most important of all, there is no such thing as vegan cheese.”
Patrick Polowsky is a Wisconsin-based food scientist who runs the website cheesescience.org. In the US, he says, while there has been a big move away from drinking fresh milk, cheese consumption is booming. Americans eat on average 37lb of the stuff each a year (more than double compared with 40 years ago) and British artisan cheeses are leading the charge. Again, he feels it is simply down to the science.
“Americans see you guys as having centuries of expert cheesemongering. We may not be able to easily distinguish Scotland from England on a map, but people know their red Leicester from their stilton,” Polowsky says. “In terms of its mineral, vitamin and protein content and its complex flavours and texture a red Leicester is incredibly hard to beat. The reason why your prime minister and lots of others find it hard to give up on is that cheese’s casein protein is highly nutritious and slow digesting. The body feels very satisfied by that. If he wants to reduce fat then he could migrate from the hard high-fat cheeses to a lower-fat goat’s cheese for a while. But any attempt by vegans to replicate that full rounded experience without milk and bacteria is likely to fail.”
Spence enjoys a creamy Oxford Blue cheese paired with a strong red. He has some sympathy and perhaps even lessons for Johnson. Research, he says, shows that 75-95 per cent of our enjoyment of food is to do with experiencing its aroma. If Johnson can find a way of simply sniffing his favourite cheese without actually eating it then he avoids the calories (100g of cheddar contains 402 calories). Johnson has previously characterised his policy on cake as “pro having it and pro eating it”. His new ideal ought to be pro sniffing his cheese before Carrie Symonds slaps his hand away and returns it to the fridge.
“Food science is certainly exploring the whole area of olfactory pleasure more closely, but the idea is not entirely new,” Spence says. “In the 1930s the Italian futurists wanted to shake up society, so they conceived a menu which was entirely aroma-based. They had a restaurant where they brought tasty dishes out, let diners smell them and then took them away. They also served roast chicken stuffed with ball bearings as a way of disrupting the traditional dining experience. That is something else the prime minister might consider if he is serious about shedding a few pounds.”
As a fully paid-up metropolitan liberal, I have strong and nuanced views on cheese. I know my Montgomery cheddar from my Isle of Mull. I know that Cheshire cheese is nice, but Caerphilly is nicer, and that Wensleydale is fine for Gromit, but an artisan-made Lancashire is more my scene. And, as of last week, I know that you can shove all that pretentious nonsense into a cocked hat and float it down the Thames because the most delicious cheese in the world is the Laughing Cow.
Forty years after I last ate processed cheese, I found myself looking at one of the small, round, cardboard packets of the Laughing Cow in the supermarket, during my walk to work, pondering what sandwich I would make myself for lunch. Something about it spoke to me. Reader, I bought it and those eight share-able little triangles took me and my colleagues on a journey filled with squidgy, cheesy joy. We had to re-learn how to open them — pull the little red tab to peel off the top, not down or round the sides. It was messy. There were actual groans of pleasure.
Now, instead of artisan Lancashire, I’ve become a raging processed-cheese snob. Baby Bel is rubbery and Dairy Lea is common. Those supermarket packets of sliced havarti are buttery and wonderful. Who knows what havarti is, or where it comes from? I just looked it up and it’s Danish, apparently, but who cares? It’s lovely.
Mainly, though, I just want Laughing Cow. Lots and lots of Laughing Cow. I note the myriad delicious recipe suggestions on the website, including roasted carrot salad with Laughing Cow sauce, and Laughing Cow bruschetta with peaches and Parma ham. “Rather than mindlessly nibbling leftover biscuits, plan some nutritious snacks in advance,” the site advises. I nod sagely.
I’m on two triangles a day now, as a mid-morning snack packed with delicious fat, salt and calories. I don’t care and I’m not alone. Ten million people in 120 countries eat the Laughing Cow every day. You might think you are a cheese connoisseur, but I’m aiming higher. I am a Cownoisseur.