Low fat, low taste.
That, in essence, sums up the results of an informal Washington Post survey of the low-fat cheeses now available at area stores. Staff members of the Washington Post Food section tasted more than a dozen low-fat cheeses in hopes of finding a more healthful substitute to traditional cheddar, Swiss and other natural cheeses that typically derive between two-thirds and three-quarters of their calories from fat. (Processed cheeses, such as American cheese slices, were not tested).
With two notable exceptions, the low-fat varieties failed to meet the challenge. As one tester commented, "these are cheeses that highlight the cracker."
The exceptions were Churny Swiss and Jarlsberg Lite.
Churny Swiss had the slight nutty edge of true Swiss and probably could be substituted for the real thing in a sandwich with few people detecting the difference. Churny, a subsidiary of Kraft USA, also makes a low-fat cheddar and jack. Although these cheeses did not receive as high a rating as the Churny Swiss, testers considered them "acceptable," especially when compared to the half-dozen other reduced-fat cheeses on the market.
As for Jarlsberg Lite, its sign of success came from the fact that testers willingly had second helpings -- and without a cracker.
Another cheese that won good marks for taste was Fine Forme, a mild American version of the sharp-tasting Pont L'Eveque. The cheese had a nice bite; however its texture was rubbery, which made it a loser in the eyes -- and mouths -- of half the testers.
Big losers were numerous. They included Alpine Lace Swiss-Lo, Alpine Lace Ched-R-Lo, Tasty-Lo Edam, Fine des Pre's, Lorraine Brand Swiss and Cabot Vitalait Cheese.
Their faults were universal: little or no taste and a very rubbery consistency. With less fat -- the chief flavoring agent in cheese -- there is not only less taste, but there is more moisture and less resilience in the texture of cheese.
Cabot's Vitalait jalapenåo version fared considerably better, but largely because the heat of the peppers supplanted the cheese's lack of flavor. "If you like jalapenåos, this is fine," one tester commented.
In fact, many cheese makers are adding jalapenåo, herbs and other flavorings to their low-fat cheeses to mask the sharply reduced flavor.
Even if the taste of low-fat cheeses were more appealing, is it worth switching? After all, most of the low-fat cheeses still contain a considerable amount of fat.
One ounce of regular Swiss cheese contains 8 grams of fat, while an ounce of Churny's Swiss has 5 grams of fat.
Percentage wise, Cabot's Vitalait has a better fat profile, containing 5 grams of fat per ounce, slightly more than half the fat found in regular cheddar. Still, the percentage of fat remains fairly high: 64 percent of the calories are dervied from fat; in regular cheddar, about 75 percent of the calories come from fat. Cholesterol is 15 milligrams per ounce, compared to 30 milligrams in regular cheddar.
Alpine Lace Swiss cheese, meanwhile, is promoted for being low in cholesterol -- 20 milligrams per ounce. Yet as Alpine Lace's own packaging notes, regular Swiss cheese has only 25 milligrams of cholesterol per ounce.
The findings of the taste panel are by no means unique. Sutton Place Gourmet's cheese buyer Stephen Garrison admits he is "not very enthusiastic" about low-fat cheeses, even though his chain's three stores carry some. The reason, he says, is simple: "They really don't taste very nice." His advice to health-conscious consumers: "You're much better off getting something that has flavor to satisfy a craving. Just moderate the amount you eat."
Regi Hise, national sales and marketing manager for Simon's Specialty Cheese in Little Chute, Wis., predicts that consumers will follow Garrison's advice, thereby actually increasing the demand for specialty, full-flavored cheeses that are high in fat.
Cheese makers readily acknowledge that the low-fat cheeses now on the market leave a lot to be desired. As Hise notes, "cheese makers are not making low-fat cheeses because they think they are necessarily better. They are making them because the market is demanding it ... . It's like a commercial for an electronics store: They want a stereo, a CD player, a boom box; they want it now, and they want it cheap. Consumers want reduced fat, reduced sodium and flavor."
But by lowering the fat and usually the sodium content, cheese makers are eliminating the two main flavor components of cheese. So any low-fat cheese, by its very nature, is going to be "different," says Hise, whose company produces two reduced-fat cheddars, neither one available locally however.
That's not to say that low-fat cheese can't be better, Hise adds. In fact, he predicts, with improvements in milk-processing technology and more trial-and-error, "you will continue to see them get better and better." But, he's quick to add, "they will never be full-fat cheeses."