You may have seen recent headlines that compare cheese to crack cocaine. I’ve never tried crack but I can tell you that relinquishing my cheese would be very problematic.
Over the years I’ve given up coffee, only to take it up again. I’ve forsaken chocolate. Then reunited. I’ve broken up with bread, then butter, and returned to both. As the medical community puts the kibosh on my favorite foods, I try to embrace its sage advice. Then, just as I’ve adjusted to my newly deprived diet, researchers contradict their earlier findings and report that those foods might not be so bad after all. In fact, consuming them may improve our health.
But let me make this perfectly clear: You’re not going to take my cheese away.
Not my Brie or my Gouda. Not my aged cheddar or my Stilton. Neither my Parmesan nor my Muenster. My cheese is here to stay.
Imagine a hamburger without its gooey, golden topping. Or spaghetti and meatballs without a Parmigiano Reggiano dusting. Grilled cheese – without the cheese????
A life sans cheese would be like my house without dog hair. Or my car with no tennis racquets. Empty. Joyless.
It seems that a handful of scientists suggest that some foods may trigger addictive-like eating behavior. Duh! Had they never tried a giant tub of salty movie popcorn? Or a quart of Ben & Jerry’s Triple Caramel Chunk Ice Cream? Of course not all foods are addictive, they point out. Take lima beans, for instance. No one, to date, has gone to rehab for addiction to lima beans.
But cheese. Delicious, creamy, melty, oozy, crumbly, salty, nutty cheese. Apparently, I’m not alone in my love affair. It’s estimated that the average American eats more than 33 pounds of cheese a year. To meet that demand the U.S. produces more cheese than any other country.
Do we consume this much cheese just because we enjoy it – or for a far more insidious reason? This is the question the medical community is delving into. Cheese contains casomorphins, small protein fragments that result from the breakdown of the milk protein casein. These fragments can attach to receptors for opiate molecules in the brain. Simply put, say the prophets of doom, eating cheese may be habit-forming.
Other researchers (likely those who eat cheese) argue that if food addictions are possible, we’re more apt to binge regularly on foods that are processed to have the highest levels of carbohydrates, sugars and fat. These foods, in contrast to cheese, create a quick spike in blood sugar which may encourage us to eat them compulsively. Think pizza, cookies, chips, chocolate or french fries.
Science aside, common sense tells us that good-tasting foods are hard to resist. And, even if cheese does activate our opioid systems, researchers aren’t sure if these molecules migrate from our gastrointestinal tracks to our brains.
What does all this gobbledygook about cheese, crack cocaine and addiction really mean? Perhaps the best way to evaluate your own dependence on cheese may be to answer the following four questions developed by a panel of renowned food addiction experts:
- Do you continue to ingest cheese despite knowing that it is salty, fattening and high in cholesterol, albeit delicious and best eaten along with a large box of crackers and maybe some grapes and a bottle or two of Merlot?
- Have you tried to quit eating cheese time after time, only to once again lock yourself in the bedroom with several blocks of Monterey Jack and Pepperidge Farm Golden Butter Crackers (you know, the ones shaped like butterflies that melt in your mouth)?
- Have you ever awakened in the morning surrounded by cheese rinds, unable to remember their names or their countries of origin?
- Have you ever tried substituting lima beans for your Gorgonzola then fantasized about submerging yourself in a vat of boiling Velveeta?
If you found yourself unable to complete this quiz because you were running to the refrigerator for a wheel of Baby Swiss, then odds are you have become a slave to the curd.
And, if that realization is distressing, here’s what calmed me down: Simply spread a generous layer of Camembert on a flatbread and top it with fig preserves and a pecan. Bon appetit!