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updated 4/29/2008 11:53:24 PM ET 2008-04-30T03:53:24

In the United States, more than 10 billion pounds of natural and processed cheeses are made every year, from about one-third of all of the milk produced in the country; and the average American consumes about 27 pounds of cheese every year. Natural cheeses are made from whole, 2 percent, 1 percent or fat-free milk, or a combination of these. Cheese is a dairy product and offers high-quality protein, vitamins B2 and B12, calcium, phosphorus and zinc. An ounce of cheddar has 114 calories, 8.9 grams of fat and 204 milligrams of calcium. And some cheeses, when eaten after meals, have been shown to help prevent tooth decay.

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Types of cheese

Cheeses labeled soft, semi-soft or hardrefer to the degree of moisture, softness and hardness in them. They consist of coagulated or curdled milk that is created by stirring, heating and draining off the watery part called whey. They are then collected and pressed into a curd. In some cases, as noted below, ripening occurs by adding bacteria or mold.

Natural cheeses can be either unripened (not aged and made by coagulating milk proteins with acid) or ripened (aged, made by coagulating milk proteins with rennet — an enzyme — and culture acids). These cheeses are subsequently aged. The protein, called casein, is a natural part of these cheeses, as is the mold that sometimes covers the cheese as it ages. It takes about five quarts of milk to make a pound of whole-milk cheese. There are more than 500 popular variations of natural cheese sold in the U.S.

Processed cheeseis a creamy, smooth cheese product made with natural cheese combined with other ingredients, usually more milk and/or milk solids, and water, plus stabilizers for longer shelf life. The combination is then heated and mixed into a homogeneous blend with the end result a cheese that melts and flows. This melting property is due to the emulsifying salts (phosphates or citrates), which bind minerals in the natural cheese to interact with the fat and water. Natural cheeses, when melted, often show a separation from the natural oils and proteins and produce a lumpy appearance.

Processed cheese foodsare usually combinations of cheddar and mozzarella, natural cheeses that are shredded and blended with salts, then heated and mixed into a creamy state. They can then be cooled to a block again. Stabilizers and gums are frequently added to processed cheeses, again to lengthen shelf life.

Pasteurized cheese sauce/spreadis a sauce product, pasteurized to stop the aging process. This certainly lengthens the shelf life, but greatly impacts the flavor because “age” is a plus in natural cheeses. Cheese spreads have more water/moisture than processed cheeses.

Imitation cheeses, or cheese substitutes, are a great alternative for those looking to avoid fats, cholesterol, sugar (lactose) or allergens. Companies have introduced cheese substitutes made from grains, rice or soybeans. All are good sources of complex carbohydrates and proteins. However, typically, they do not melt as well as natural cheese, nor have the same mouth feel. Although most cheese substitute products have fat (usually from partially hydrogenated oil), they do not contain cholesterol. They are also typically lower in calories, with a slice ranging from 22 to 90 calories. 

Storing cheese

Proper storage of your cheeses is important. Always rewrap cheese in paper, preferably, and wrap it as tightly as possible to avoid the cheese picking up flavors or odors from other foods. For extra insurance, wrap the paper-wrapped cheese in plastic wrap.

Recommended storage temperature is 35-40º F, which is usually in the vegetable bin. Do not store in a meat bin. If mold does form, cut off the mold and about a half-inch more. The remaining cheese will be perfectly fine to eat. If it smells funny, looks slimy or looks dried and cracked, throw it away.

Change the wrapping of cheeses frequently. If the cheese is still available after one week, rewrap in new paper and plastic wrap. For very pungent cheeses, like a washed rind or blue cheese, double-wrap it. Sniff the package. If you can still smell the cheese, wrap it once more, and store in a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Do not store pungent cheeses with other cheeses. Do not store natural or artisanal cheeses in the freezer; their texture will not survive.

Buying cheese
Want to save money on cheese?You better shop around. Look carefully in three places in your store for the same product — all with different prices. The dairy case will usually have staple cheeses such as cheddar, Swiss and Monterey Jack, prepackaged at the lowest price. The deli and cheese tables may have the exact same products, but you will pay more. Know what you want and shop all three areas for the best price.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil@supermarketguru.com. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.

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