Choosing Cheeses for Shavuot

Yellow cheeses have a bad reputation due to their high cholesterol, fat and sodium levels - but are rich in calcium and protein. How to enjoy the benefits without damaging your health.

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With all due respect to commemorating the receiving of the Torah or its association with the harvest and first fruits, for most Israelis Shavuot evokes dairy products - especially cheese - and sales typically skyrocket right before the holiday. Dairy consumption is expected to soar 25% this Shavuot, according to Israel Dairy Board general manager Shaike Drori.

This doesn't mean Israelis don't consume plenty of dairy products the rest of the year, and their appetites extend to a wide variety of cheeses. The market generates annual sales of NIS 2.25 billion, according to Nielsen Israel. While the top-selling category is white cheeses, the hard yellow category accounts for 32% of the market and, according to the dairy board, registered the largest growth with a 6% increase over last year. The three top brands in this category and their shares in the yellow cheese segment, as reported by Nielsen, are Emek - 57%, Gilboa - 16% and Gush Halav - 11%.

Michal Mor-Melamed, the cheesemaker at Shirat Haro'im, a boutique dairy in Kibbutz Reshafim, explains that hard cheese is defined by an aging process lasting six months or longer, whereas yellow cheese is aged over a three- to four-month period and can therefore be considered semi-hard. This, she says, is apparent in its texture.

Yellow cheese is made along the lines of Swiss Emmental cheese, noted for its medium-hard texture, large "eyes" (the holes that make Swiss cheese - well - Swiss cheese ) and piquant taste, "but with changes to the texture and taste to suit the Israeli palate," explains Mor-Melamed.

Over the years yellow cheese has developed a reputation as an unhealthy food item that shouldn't be eaten too often because of its high fat and cholesterol content - unlike soft white and cottage cheeses, which are recommended on a daily basis.

But despite its drawbacks, yellow cheese is now recognized as having some advantages too, according to Einat Mazor, a clinical dietitian with Clalit Health Services. These include high percentages of calcium and protein, which are important for proper nutrition and keeping fit, especially for kids. It's now even recommended that children judiciously eat a slice each day.

The popularity of hard cheeses, including yellow cheeses, has led to the development of many variations, differentiated by taste and texture. Mazor and Michal Sukman, a dietitian at Maccabi Healthcare Services, were asked to rate how healthy some of the more popular brands are, based on their nutritional values.

The survey crowned Emek's 5% reduced fat cheese and Tara's 9% thinly-sliced cheese as the best from a nutritional perspective. "Their only drawback is taste, but anyone who can stomach them will profit because they can be consumed daily," says Mazor.

Look for the most calcium and protein

A distinct advantages of hard and yellow cheeses is their high calcium content - as much as 10 times the amount in spreadable cheeses, according to Mazor. "Those who need to raise their calcium intake and don't suffer from cholesterol, blood pressure or weight problems are advised to make yellow cheese part of their daily diet," she says.

These cheeses also contain proteins with higher nutritional value than proteins originating in plants, says Mazor, explaining that they play a critical role in children's growth, strengthening the immune system and building tissue. Another advantage of yellow cheeses is that their calcium can withstand heat, so even grated cheese - used mainly on toast and in casseroles - is an excellent source of calcium.

Choose cheeses with reduced fat content

"The real problem with hard cheeses is the amount of fat, especially saturated fat, known for clogging blood vessels and possibly leading to cardiovascular disease," explains Mazor. "This is the major reason yellow cheese consumption should be limited, especially by people suffering from such problems."

The percentage of fat shown on the package should therefore be checked before throwing it into the shopping cart. The dietitians recommend that cheese with over 15% fat not be eaten on a regular basis but saved for special occasions.

Beware of faux-cheese

Imitation cheeses boasting milk protein vegetable fat have become a popular substitute for solving the cholesterol problem. The best-known product in this category is Kfir's Hatzehuba Hatova ("The Good Yellow" ). This product isn't cheese and doesn't say "cheese" on the package, but nonetheless is often found on the same shelves as the real thing and is meant as a low-cholesterol substitute for the original.

While our two dietitians agree these have reduced cholesterol, they say the product includes additives no less harmful, like hydrogenated fats and starches - and the reduction of fat content in these products is also often insufficient. "It should be noted this isn't a cheese that's been through the regular process," warns Sukman. "It's an engineered product made from natural ingredients, but can never attain the quality of the original."

Kfir responded: "In producing Hatzehuba Hatova only the good components of milk are used, without the milk fat that is saturated with cholesterol. The products aren't 'engineered.' Natural milk protein made from skim milk is used, adding vegetable fat without trans fat, producing a good alternative to cheese products rich in cholesterol and saturated fat."

Pay attention to sodium content

All the cheeses we examined had high quantities of sodium, between 380 and 1,250 milligrams per 100-gram serving (about four slices ). These are enormous amounts considering an adult's maximum daily sodium intake shouldn't exceed 2,400 mg. and keeping in mind that almost everything we eat nowadays contains salt.

"Everyone knows the damage that can be caused by excessive cholesterol and fat intake, but public awareness is still lacking concerning salt," says Sukman. "Products were once less industrialized, but today the number of high blood pressure and heart disease sufferers is on the rise - even among people in their 30s - and much of this is the result of excessive salt intake."

Sukman and Mazor add that it's important to choose cheese with the least sodium and not just look at the percentages for fat, calories and calcium.

Look for the shortest list of ingredients

"As a rule, a short list of ingredients can indicate less processing, with the final product qualitatively closer to the natural raw materials," says Sukman. "But it's important to pay attention to various additives, like nutritional fiber. Cheese has no natural fiber and the amount in the product is negligible, so the purpose for it being added probably isn't nutritional but to enhance the product's look and texture."

The longest lists of ingredients were on cheeses meant for baking such as grated cheese, those meant for putting on toast, and cheese snacks, not to mention imitation cheeses. The production process of classic cheeses and most of the lite variety managed to maintain a short list of ingredients.

Thin slices help to control consumption

One solution for keeping the appetite for yellow cheese under control is in how it's sliced. The usual "fix" is one or two slices, so the thinner the slices, the less fat, cholesterol and sodium they contain. Thinner-sliced products have been making their way onto the shelves lately, like Tara's thinly-sliced yellow cheese, and Mazor and Sukman recommend choosing these.

Another alternative suggested by Sukman is buying at the deli counter where shoppers can determine the quantity they buy and how it's cut. The only drawback with this, she says, concerns sterility and how cheeses there are kept, as opposed to the conditions under which they are sliced and packaged at the factory.

A wide variety of cheeses are sold in Israeli stores. Make sure to read the contents on the package before choosing.Credit: Nir Kafri