Everybody loves cheese! Right? Any food that we love will have its very vocal detractors. One that note, a Facebook meme about cheese caught my eye a while ago and I thought it would provide a good lesson in fake reasonableness.
Attributed to Dr. Neal Barnard, this statement says two things about cheese, but only one is pertinent:
“The typical slice of cheese is 70% fat – that’s one step away from Vaseline. It’s one of the unhealthiest foods you can eat. But marketers learned a long time ago that people gravitate toward cheese so they add it to everything.”
We can ignore the part about cheese being “one step away” from Vaseline. As a matter of fact, you can ignore most statements about a food being one step away from something indelible because such statements are always vague and unscientific. Cheese has nothing to do with petroleum jelly. As for the part about marketers, chefs have been adding lots of cheese to food for centuries. Because cheese, like butter, makes things taste good, not to mention the effect of that ooey-gooey texture.
The second part, that a typical slice of cheese has 70% fat, is not an isolated statement. Loren Cordain, in The Paleo Diet Revised: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat, asserting something similar:
“…cheeses average about 74% fat.”
Is this true? Well, that is where the lesson comes in. Statements such as these can be technically true but still misleading. And, numbers that rely on percentages can easily be used to mislead.
70 to 75% fat are huge numbers for cheese. In order to get these huge numbers, you have to do one of two things:
1. Use the “French method.”
In America, we measure fat percentage as the total fat in cheese, period. So, this means that in order to get these big numbers, which you will only actually find in cheese with added cream, you have to consider the dry matter, not the entire cheese, called the “Percent Maitre Gras.” Even given that, whole milk cheeses are more typically around 50 percent Maitre Gras.
However, in America, we consider the weight of the entire cheese. This is why with a soft cheese, which has more moisture, there is less fat per serving than the harder cheeses like cheddar.
Most of the typical cheeses we eat have around say, 30 to 35% fat. Whole milk itself is only 3.25% fat.
2. Use Calories from Fat, without actually stating the difference
But, if you want to further confuse people, don’t give them the actual percentage of fat, but the percentage of calories from fat. If you do that, you get 65 to 90 percent “fat.”
Regardless, cheese does not average 70% fat. This would be quite an accomplishment, in fact, without, as I said, adding cream.
To underscore the ignorance in the statement, remember that the meme talks about “a typical slice of cheese.” A cheese with such a high-fat percentage could never be sliced! As pedantic as this may seem, it’s fair play.
Indeed, a cheese you can actually slice tends to have a fairly narrow range of usable protein to fat content. In order to even have the fat in the cheese in the first place, it must have a certain amount of protein to “hold” it! Otherwise, it would simply be lost in the whey during cheese-making. So, a basic cheese with 70% fat is simply not within the bounds of possibility for a solid slice of cheese made with cut curds. So, again, a typical “slice” of cheese is nowhere near 70% fat.
Further confusing are the Standards of identity for Cheeses, as regulated by the FDA, which tend to list minimum fat percentages in terms of total solids, which is useful for cheese-makers but not nutritionally accurate since servings reflect total weight including moisture.
The take-home is this: The average cheeses we eat in America do not have 70 to 75% fat. Cheddar cheese, for example, has about 30 to 40% fat. Harder cheeses will tend to have more fat than softer cheeses, and cheeses made with skim or part-skim milk will have 7 to 15% fat.