Is Processed Cheese Yet Another dangerous Fast Food to Avoid?
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Is Processed Cheese Yet Another dangerous Fast Food to Avoid?

It is contended by some people, that a high proportion of processed cheeses are a blight on the health of modern society, and the sad fact is that the large majority of people do not know, or perhaps even care about the differences between unprocessed and processed cheeses. A major reason for this, especially in a cash-strapped society probably comes down to the price differential between the two.

The abundant volume and dubious value of modern processed cheeses are often criticized for their possible health effects (associated with chemical preservatives, artificial colors/flavors, and trans-fats), inferior taste, and small range of flavors, which is far narrower than the range for unprocessed cheeses and normally very mild. This form of cheese in sliced form and its derivatives have become commonplace in the United States, most notably used for cheeseburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Processed cheeses lack the range of textures available in unprocessed cheeses and are normally very smooth and medium-firm. It tends to contain a multitude of chemicals, including emulsifiers such as sodium phosphate, potassium phosphate and tartrate. Although the concentrations per volume of cheese are relatively low, it may be a good idea to be aware of what you may be putting into your body.

On the Medline Website, the above chemical emulsifiers are described as follows:

  • Sodium Phosphate: Has caused serious kidney damage in some people. In some cases, this damage was permanent, and some people whose kidneys were damaged had to be treated with dialysis (treatment to remove waste from the blood when the kidneys are not working well).
  • Potassium Phosphate: Severe allergic reactions (rash; hives; itching; difficulty breathing; tightness in the chest; swelling of the mouth, face, lips, or tongue); bone or joint pain; confusion; decreased urination; dizziness; irregular heartbeat; muscle cramps; numbness, tingling, pain, or weakness in the hands or feet; numbness or tingling around the lips; seizures; severe or persistent diarrhea; shortness of breath; unusual tiredness; unusual weakness or heaviness of the legs.
  • Tartrate: Constipation; diarrhea; dizziness; dry mouth/eyes; gas; headache; heartburn; light-headedness; mild drowsiness; muscle aches; nausea; pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site; stomach pain; trouble sleeping; unusual tiredness or weakness; vomiting.

It is contended by some people, that a high proportion of processed cheeses are a blight on the health of modern society, and the sad fact is that the large majority of people do not know, or perhaps even care about the differences between unprocessed and processed cheeses. A major reason for this, especially in a cash-strapped society probably comes down to the price differential between the two. Moreover, in the hectic pace of modern life, it is likely to remain that way – simply because people do not seem to have the time or skill to make their own products as would have been the case in the rural farmhouse a century or more ago.

The steps required for making cheese the old-fashioned way (from milk)

  • Curdling
  • Curd processing
  • Ripening

Curdling

CurdlingThis step of the process is to allow for the separation of the milk into solids (curds) and liquids (whey) – this step requires that the milk is acidified (soured) and rennet is added. This acidification can actually be achieved by adding an organic acid such as vinegar or lemon juice, but in practice, the professionals add a “starter bacteria” This is a far better way to go, because in this way the natural milk sugars are converted into lactic acid – which play a major role in the ultimate superior flavor of aged cheese.

If you have ever wondered why some cheeses have holes (or eyes) this comes from a Swiss starter culture – this culture generates bubble from the gas, carbon dioxide, during the aging process.

Curd processing

Curd ProcessingAt this stage of the process, the cheese will normally have set into a very moist Gel from. For some soft cheeses, this is the end of the line, and they are then simply drained, salted and packaged for the consumer market.

For a large proportion of the rest of the cheeses, the curd is simply cut into small cubes. This allows water to drain off from the curd process. At this point, some hard varieties of cheese are heated to between 35 and 50 degrees, which forces the whey out of the cut curd. This also changes the taste of the finished cheese, affecting both the bacterial culture and chemistry of the milk. The addition of salt into cheese, is not only directed at catering for taste, it also:

  • Inhibits spoiling
  • Draws moisture from the curd
  • Firms the texture (as the result of an interaction with its proteins)

Other factors affecting the texture and flavor of the cheese:

  • Stretching – (e.g. Mozzarella) – by stretching and kneading in hot water, a product is made with a body which is stringy and fibrous by nature.
  • Cheddaring – the “cut” curd is repeatedly “piled up”, which has the effect of gently pushing the moisture away. Thereafter, the curd is milled for a long period, which tends to refine its finished texture.
  • Washing – (e.g. Edam and Gouda) – the curd is washed in warm water, thereby reducing its acidity, and resulting in a milder-tasting cheese.

Final Shape

The curds are now pressed into a custom-made mold, and the harder and more solid the end product required, the more pressure is applied – thus driving out the moisture. The molds are made in a way that the moisture/water can be allowed to drain off gradually.

Ripening

Freshly produced cheese, in organic terms, is much like a newborn baby, and although it is salty to the taste, is somewhat bland with a rubbery texture. For some folk the cheese curd state is attractive enough to their palate to be eaten at this stage. This is, however, more the exception than the rule.

Cheeses are normally left to rest during the aging (or ripening) process, ranging from just a few days, to as much as several years. During this stage, there is a naturally occurring breakdown of what are called casein proteins and milk fats into a complex substance consisting of amino acids, amines and fatty acids. A refinement of this ripening process can be introduced at this point by introducing a special bacteria. The modern approach is to add prepared cultures, which gives a more consistent end-result.

The end-product cheeses developed in this way include:

  • Soft-ripened – Brie and Camembert
  • Blue – Roquefort, Stilton and Gorgonzola
  • Rind-washed: Limburger (yes, that's right – stinky cheese!)

Fresh, Whey and stretched curd cheeses.

  • Fresh: The primary consideration in the categorization of this class of cheese is the age. Fresh cheeses in this range, without additional preservatives will spoil in a matter of just days. For these elementary-level cheeses, the milk is simply allowed to curdle in a suitable container, and then drained. Very little else is done here. Good examples, well-known to most of us are Cottage Cheese and American Style Cream cheese. They both have a mild taste and are soft and spreadable on bread or similar.
  • Whey – made from the “discarded” whey, this variety includes some of the more exotically named varieties of cheeses, and are generally unfamiliar to the palates of the mass market – but some of the better known varieties include Italian Ricotta and Greek Mizithra.
  • Curd: Mozzarella is one of the better known “fresh” cheeses. It is made by stretching out fresh milk derived curds, and then kneading in hot water to form a ball. In southern Italy this particular cheese variety is eaten within a few hours of it being made – YUMMY! Stored in brine however, it can be shipped, and therefore is famously known worldwide for its extensive use on the ever-popular PIZZA!

Images by courtesy of Stock.xchng

Credits: Wikipedia

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Comments (8)

Keep it up Colin this is marvelous. See, I love cheese and am not giving it up...but I'm staying away from all processed food as much as I can. And there is nothing worse for our health I believe, than American cheese, or Velveeta as they sell it. Thumbs up! I want to vote up but the indicator is saying that I already voted for it - and I didn't. It was your other cheese article. Thank you.

Ranked #3 in Food Safety

Thanks Beverly - you confirm what I think - bit puzzling about that vote indicator isn't it?

Yes, Colin, I had the same thing happen this morning with someone else. It said I had already voted when the person had just written the article and I hadn't read it yet. We need to keep an eye out for this.

Ranked #12 in Food Safety

What a great presentation and information on processed cheese, its an eye opener, thanks.

Ranked #3 in Food Safety

Thanks for kind comment Ron - ALWAYS motivating!

Ranked #1 in Food Safety

These food articles are really great Colin. Keep them coming.

Yes, great

Great, interesting article! We always get the real cheese, even though it takes some digging around in the supermarket case to find it.

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