Healthy eating in 2021: Cheese or no?
Today, people are more health-conscious than ever when choosing what to eat. Many are opting for animal-free diets, or switching to organic versions of old favourites, such as cheese. In the last six decades the United States has seen a huge growth in popularity for cheese, and it remains a firm staple in the average diet: according to the statistics, the consumption of cheese has tripled from 1970 until now. Availability of a wide range of quality cheeses by an industry of specialist cheesemakers has also increased within the country.
Among the plethora of offerings is cream cheese, a delicious fresh version that, interestingly, became a traditional food as long ago as 1583 in the UK. Cream cheese in fact differs from regular cheese in its ingredients, its uses and its nutritional value. Although it’s popular as a breakfast food and in particular as a spread for bagels, cream cheese is an immensely versatile ingredient with a wide range of uses in recipes, and it can add necessary minerals and vitamins. Depending on the particular type, cream cheese can also provide additional health benefits – it has a low lactose profile and carries beneficial strains of bacteria, antioxidants, and vitamin A, for instance.
There is a tendency to avoid dairy cheese because of lactose intolerance or a milk allergy, or because of a vegan or weight loss diet. Whether cream cheese is a healthy choice or not depends on the individual and their particular dietary requirements, and in many cases, the problem is amply solved with cream cheese substitutes. But where consuming dairy is not an issue, is cream cheese good for one’s health, and if so, how can it best be used? Here are some facts to help clarify.
What exactly is cream cheese?
Cream cheese is a soft, mild-flavoured type of cheese that has regular use as a spread. It is used in other recipes such as pancakes, soups and baked goods. There are various forms of cream cheese: regular, light, brick, Neufchatel, fat-free, and whipped. Versions with added flavours, such as strawberry, cinnamon raisin, scallion, salmon, and vegetable, are also available.
How is cream cheese made?
The traditional recipe for making cream cheese uses cream or milk, or a combination of both. Some other varieties, such as vegan cream cheese, made from alternative milks, are also available. Generally, lactic acid is added to the cream to reduce the pH, which causes it to coagulate and separates it into whey and curds. Once the whey protein is strained out, the curds are sent for heating, and other ingredients, such as stabilisers, are added. To improve the firmness and texture of the final cream cheese, sometimes a clotting enzyme is also included.
Depending on the variety, the carbohydrate, protein, and fat amounts in cream cheese vary quite a lot. The nutritional facts of full-fat cream cheese, for example, can be significantly different from those in light cream cheese. Almost all types of cream cheese are low in carbohydrate and high in calories, regardless of whether they are fat-free, whipped or otherwise. A small but significant quantity of micronutrients, such as phosphorus, calcium and vitamin A, also appears in many variants.
Two tablespoons of standard cream cheese contain 100 calories, as well as nine grams of fat, of which six grams are saturated, so light or whipped variants are the way to go if the aim is to lighten things up. Whipped cream cheese gives the sensation of eating more because the cheese contains air from whipping, which adds to the perceived bulk and may be more filling. Whipped cream cheese contains five grams of saturated fat, eight grams of overall fat, and 80 calories in two tablespoons.
Light cream cheese, with the fat content reduced, contains even fewer calories: five grams of fat, three saturated, and 70 calories from two tablespoons. Fat-free cream cheese contains only about half of the calories of light or whipped cream cheese, and Neufchatel has even less – only one-third of regular cream cheese with two tablespoons containing six grams of fat, four of which are saturated fat, and 80 calories. It also provides a small amount of pantothenic acid, folate, riboflavin, vitamin K and Vitamin E.
Unlike regular cheese, cream cheese doesn’t offer a huge amount in terms of nutritional benefit. However, some benefits include
Vitamin A and retinol
The vital, fat-soluble Vitamin A performs a lot of essential roles in the body, including optimal vision, immune functions, development and growth, skeletal health and gene regulation. The most bioavailable form of vitamin A is retinol, and cream cheese provides a high concentration of it. With 362 micrograms of equivalents per 100 grams, cream cheese offers over 40% of the daily recommended intake.
The majority of the global population (about 65 percent, and among some East Asian communities much higher) are lactose intolerant. People with this condition cannot digest lactose, which is a milk sugar variant and can be found in almost every dairy product, including yoghurt, ice cream and milk; consumption of these items can cause digestive issues such as cramps, bloating and diarrhoea. But some can consume and tolerate cream cheese as it contains a minimal percentage of lactose. To aid in digestion, some brands also add the lactase enzyme, which makes the lactose-free varieties of cream cheese.
Maintenance of gut health
To enhance the texture in the final product, certain bacteria strains like lactic acid are added during production. Some beneficial strains of bacteria, known as probiotics, can help reduce inflammation, increase nutrient absorption, and ultimately support gut health. If a cream cheese is treated with heat, the bacteria can be destroyed, so not all types contain probiotics. To ensure a cream cheese has probiotics it’s important to search for varieties containing active and live cultures.
Cream cheese provides several compounds, such as carotenoids and antioxidants, which help to prevent cell damage and oxidative stress by neutralising harmful free radicals. These antioxidants play a vital role in fighting disease and maintaining health. Some research shows that they can help combat severe conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and autoimmune disorders.
It’s easy to add cream cheese to diets in a lot of different ways – it’s not just for smearing it on bagel. This tasty ingredient works in both savoury and sweet dishes, and it can be used to enhance the texture of soups and baked goods.
To try something new, cooks can add it to fruit tarts, pasta dishes, biscuits or mashed potatoes as a simple way to ramp up the flavour and taste. Alternatively, it can be mixed with preferred seasonings and spices, such as chives, dill, and garlic, for a simple vegetable dip. It’s even possible to add extra flavour to your Christmas recipe.
Drawbacks and downsides
Cream cheese has some potential negative points, though there is nothing outright bad about it. Some factors to consider include
The hard cheese competition
Regular hard cheese is just a concentrated version of milk, and as time goes by, the milk sugars are digested by the bacteria. Thus, cheese contains a very high level of protein, fats and other nutrients found in milk within a limited package that’s also low in carbohydrates. Cream cheese, however, is a major source of calories and fat as it is made from both fresh cream and cultured milk. Furthermore, it doesn’t provide a concentrated source of nutrients, like hard cheese such as cheddar and parmesan does, as it doesn’t ferment for long.
People with dairy allergies (an entirely different problem to lactose intolerance) cannot enjoy milk, cheese, yoghurt, or any other dairy products, regardless of the lactose content. Though cream cheese does not have a lot of protein in it, this tiny amount can still create problems for people with sensitivities or severe allergies. For those with a lactose intolerance, while the lactose percentage in cream cheese is relatively low, it does contain more milk sugars than harder cheese as it is a form of fresh dairy.
Saturated fat content
There is also a concern about the high level of saturated fat, which is responsible for raising the level of plasma related to LDL Cholesterol (LDL-C). Some research indicates that LDL-C causes cardiovascular risks. However, analysis by other researchers suggests that dairy products have an inverse or neutral impact on cardiovascular risk, so there is little evidence to prove either assertion.
Undoubtedly, cream cheese is very tasty, but it isn’t among the most nutritious foods in any diet. That said, it does offer a few nutritional benefits as well as offering new flavour in recipes. Overall, cream cheese can be a delicious inclusion, but hard aged cheeses are a healthier choice.
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