Most people, when asked if they would eat more plant-based meals or avoid meat products, are willing to cut back on certain products. Beef and pork are usually the first to be reduced due to the concept of avoiding “red meat,” but last on this imaginary list of things people will give up is cheese.
The act of avoiding cheese (and other animal by-products) is what separates vegans from vegetarians and, in some cases, the men from the boys. The question then is “Why give up cheese?” It’s a good question to ask, because in terms of number of animals harmed by eating cheese, that amount is certainly much lower than eating cows and pigs. The average meat eater is responsible for the deaths of 31 animals annually, but when you break it down, only one-half of a pig and one-eighth of a beef cow are killed each year per person. For dairy cows, an average consumption of dairy leads to the death of one-thirtieth of a dairy cow. The cruelty associated with dairy cows, however, seems much more grave and disturbing than other types of animal cruelty as I discussed in my past article called, “Moo Over This: Sexism, Animal Abuse Linked.”
Then, again, why give up cheese? It is, in fact, really, really difficult to give up cheese, and for a good reason: It’s addictive. Casein, a protein commonly found in mammalian milk, makes up about 80 percent of the proteins in cow milk and 20-45 percent of proteins found in human milk. Breast milk also has protein distinctions between women who don’t consume dairy and have higher levels of human casomorphins and those who do consume dairy and have higher levels of bovine casomorphins. These casomorphins contain opiates that are released when digested, and when mothers nurse their infants, a drug-like effect occurs in the baby’s brain — partially to ensure that nutrients are delivered to the infant and also to produce an anti-diarrheal effect on the intestines. Cheese, as it happens, contains more casein than any other dairy products, because when milk is separated from its water, whey proteins and lactose sugar, all that’s left is concentrated casein and fat. Casein also hosts other compounds that are drug-like, such as phenylethlamine, found in chocolate, and, of course, morphine.
Cheese, like most animal products, has high amounts of trans fat, saturated fat and bad cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins), which all contribute to high risks of heart disease, especially if you don’t ingest enough plant fiber. Additionally, if you like flavored or aged cheese, you may be ingesting the by-products of mites — mites are purposefully added to some aged cheeses to ripen them and develop a nutty, fruit flavor and aroma. Poorly stored aged cheese sometimes contains the cheese fly or the “cheese skipper” (Piophila casei), and it functions the same way in order to intentionally add flavor to cheese. The cheese flies are larvae and they contribute to some infections and even urinary tract infections.
Certainly, no one is arguing that cheese can’t be delicious, especially with the cheese skippers flying around! But, do the facts about cheese make it more or less appetizing? Giving up cheese might seem like a heavy sacrifice, but like most addictions, over time you won’t miss it and can try nut-based cheeses like cashew cheese! If you would like more information on cheese and casein, visit Nutritionfacts.org and PCRM.org.
Benjamin Sylvester is the president of the Drexel Animal Welfare Group. He can be contacted at [email protected].
“Moo Over This” publishes biweekly.