Say Cheese!

This food gives everyone something to smile about

My kids want to chow down on cheese 24/7. Whether it’s the first gooey thing they tuck into for breakfast or the last little piquant bite before bed, Krystal and Nick can’t imagine life without cheddar, marble and Parmesan. Truth be told, we all gravitate toward cheese as an easy, instant comfort food of choice. Besides, it’s healthy — isn’t it? You bet. According to the Dairy Farmers of Canada, a single 2 oz (56 g) serving of cheddar cheese boasts as much protein as two large eggs. Cheese also has niacin, riboflavin, vitamin A and zinc, and strikes up the same big bang of calcium as eight medium sardines with bones. The good news

In fact, cheese is a top source of bone-building calcium. Just one serving of cheddar supplies 200 mg, or about 20 percent of a child’s daily need. While all cheese has calcium, levels vary widely. There’s a dramatic difference between a tablespoon of grated Parmesan (355 mg calcium) and the same amount of regular cream cheese (12 mg calcium). Here’s how some kid favourites stack up when comparing calcium levels per ounce (28 g) of cheese:

• Romano 302 mg
• Swiss 224 mg
• Mozzarella, part skim 222 mg
• Monterey Jack 211 mg
• Feta 140 mg
• Ricotta 58 mg
• Cottage cheese, creamed 17 mg
• Cheestring, Black Diamond Marbelicious (21 g) 150 mg

Great tasting, kid pleasing and chockablock with calcium, cheese is almost a nutritional dream come true. The only ingredient standing in its way is saturated fat, which ever so sadly is responsible for much of cheese’s allure. Fat blesses cheese with a rich flavour and addictive mouth feel, which probably accounts for our national love affair with the stuff — cheese consumption in Canada has grown steadily over the past five years, translating into just under 27 lb per person in 2005 (and kids, on average, eat slightly more than adults).

It’s easy to cheese it up. Let’s say that little mouse in your house nibbles an ounce of cheddar melted on toast for breakfast (9 g fat), a couple of cheese strings for snack at recess (8 g), then two servings of McCain Crescendo Rising Crust 4 Cheese Pizza (26 g). Fat escalates quickly.

Like calcium levels, fat also fluctuates in cheese. Heavy hitters include regular cream cheese, havarti, Monterey Jack, cheddar and processed American — all containing from 9 to 11 g fat per ounce. Cottage cheese and ricotta have a higher moisture content and less than half the fat.

So what’s the big fat deal? Nutrition experts remind us that too much saturated fat is to be avoided for children over age two, as it’s associated with high cholesterol levels and higher risk for heart disease. While kids over two do require slightly more fat than adults, they can’t go hog-wild. Enter the low-fat cheese option. But according to Catherine Gauthier of Dairy Farmers of Canada, low-fat varieties account for only 13 percent of the total cheese sold in supermarkets and have shown little growth over the past five years.

Jennifer Rouzieres isn’t surprised by low-fat cheeses’ lacklustre sales. “I never ever serve low-fat cheese because we don’t like the taste,” says the mother of toddler twins, Tobias and Elise, currently living in cheese heaven — France. “Low-fat camembert is just wrong!” Even the Dairy Farmers of Canada website states: “Light cheeses are simply not as flavourful and as satisfying as the cheeses they’re meant to replace.” Still, some cheeses lend themselves better to low fat than others — part-skim mozzarella and low-fat cream cheese both slip under the radar set by the cheese monsters in my abode.

When all else fails, try moderation. Enjoy the rich taste of cheese, but keep tabs on how often and how much. Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating advises two to four servings of dairy products per day, depending on your child’s age. Here’s what a 50 g (almost 2 oz) serving looks like:

• 2 slices of processed cheese
• 3 x 1 in. (7.5 x 2.5 cm) chunk of hard cheese
• 2½ pieces Laughing Cow Mini Babybel
• ½ cup (125 mL) grated cheddar

Worth its salt?

Sodium is another slightly evil element to consider when evaluating cheese. A wholesome ½ cup (125 mL) of 1% cottage cheese contains a whopping 459 mg — about one-fifth of a day’s recommended allowance — and just 2 oz (56 g) of Kraft Velveeta Processed Cheese spread has 840 mg. Processed cheeses are more likely to be sodium-heavy than their natural counterparts. Two ounces of processed Swiss cheese, for instance, has 780 mg, or seven times that of regular Swiss cheese (108 mg).

Examining the process

Processed doesn’t always equal sub-nutrition. According to the Black Diamond website: “Processed cheese is made by finely grinding, mixing and heating one or more cheeses with added milk and/or milk products.” While sodium isn’t mentioned, it is added, as are a host of difficult-to-pronounce ingredients listed on most of these products, such as emulsifiers, artificial colours or stabilizers like cellulose gum or carrageenan. Regardless, most processed cheese items are still a good source of calcium. Check labels for calcium, fat and sodium levels.

Check the size of the slice too, warns Burnaby, BC, registered dietitian Rola Zahr. Processed slices are available in thick and thin slices, affecting portion size and nutrients. So once again, a little label reading can go a long way — as cheesy as that sounds.

Code Blue

What to do when a blue splotch dots a chunk of cheese you’re storing? If it’s a soft or processed cheese, toss it, says Burnaby, BC, registered dietitian Rola Zahr. But hang on to the hard stuff. Hard cheeses are low in moisture, and moulds generally develop on the surface — not penetrating the cheese. “It’s OK to cut off at least an inch around and below the visible mould,” says Zahr. “Wrap the trimmed cheese in new waxed paper or plastic, refrigerate and use up the remaining hard cheese as quickly as possible.”

Here’s a quick meal in a few minutes that’s a terrific follow-up to one of those takeout rotisserie chicken nights in your home. Serve with a green salad or sliced veggies.

4 6–7 in. (15–18 cm) whole wheat pitas
¼ cup (50 mL) bottled barbecue sauce
2 cups (500 mL) leftover rotisserie chicken, sliced
1 1/3 cup (325 mL) grated Monterey Jack cheese

Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). Spread 2 tsp (10 mL) barbecue sauce, ½ cup (125 mL) chicken and 1/3 cup (75 mL) cheese on each pita. Repeat 3 times. Arrange on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and bake 10 to 12 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and golden.

Makes 4 servings.

Our recipe tester, Jenny Koniuk, tests Nutrition using both imperial and metric measurements. However, proportions in the metric version may differ slightly from the original, causing small variations in the result.

In a Serving
calories 445
protein 35.6 g
fat 18.4 g
carbohydrates 32.2 g
fibre 4.6 g
calcium 28%*
iron 22%*
zinc 39%*

*of recommended daily amount

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