Say Cheese

What's the skinny on the difference between regular, low-fat and fat-free cheese? Here's the real deal.
Say Cheese

Salty feta. Sharp Cheddar. Smooth and creamy goat cheese. As if the endless number of varieties weren't enough to choose from, in the 90's the fat content of cheese was tinkered with and boy, oh boy, did it further confuse the issue.

Cheese snobs were alarmed, but weight-loss hopefuls were thrilled. Now they, too, could relish in the rich, creamy taste and texture of this highly craved food without expanding their waistlines (by watching their portions, of course.) Coveted soul-soothing foods like macaroni and cheese, pizza and lasagna could all be enjoyed — guilt-free.

Looks Aren't Everything
But not all cheeses are created equal. Many of those blocks of cheese on your grocer's shelves look the same, but their taste and cooking properties can differ drastically. Some curdle when they melt and others taste plastic-y. Still others are such authentic knock-offs, you might never know they're imitations.

So what's a cheese lover to do? First, check out our cheese label chart for a refresher course in what it all means.

Regular cheese: Full fat.
Reduced-fat: At least 25% less fat than the regular fat cheese of the same variety.
Light: 1/3 fewer calories or 50% less fat per serving.
Low-fat: 3 grams of fat or less per serving.
Fat-free: Less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.

The Real Deal
So how do you know which cheese to use when cooking? Jodie Shield, M Ed, RD, recipe developer and nutrition consultant to The Chicago Tribune, gives us the scoop. Which cheese you choose, she says, depends on what you're making.

Cheer for Fat-Free
"Fat-free cheeses don't always melt well, so put them in something forgiving," comments Shield. Try them on baked potatoes seasoned well with oregano and basil and complemented by a robust tomato sauce. Or sprinkle some shredded fat-free cheese into a taco. Just make sure to dress it up with a dash of cumin or cayenne.

Run for Reduced-Fat
Reduced-fat cheeses get a better rap. Shield recommends experimenting with them in casseroles, omelets, heated sandwiches and pasta dishes — try our Roasted Vegetable Lasagna for starters. And in some cases, she says, they're even more desirable than their full-fat relatives. The emulsifiers (stabilizers) in reduced-fat cheeses often results in a smoother sauce than those made with regular varieties. Now who wouldn't enjoy rigatoni in a lightened-up cheesy tomato sauce?

Find Occasion for Full-Fat
As for full-fat cheeses (a.k.a., The Real Thing), Shield suggests splurging on them when flavor really counts, like in an uncooked dish or when having cheese and crackers for a snack. "Save real cheese for a sandwich, but in a casserole when you won't miss it, go for a reduced-fat variety."

Some other tips for cooking with regular cheese: Use it shredded so you need to use less and choose varieties that pack the greatest flavor punch. Try a touch of gorgonzola, feta or extra sharp cheddar for a robust flavor. As Shield says, "A little bit goes a long way."

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