Interview: Is Cheese Healthy? Babs Hogan is researching this superfood...

 

Babs Hogan cheese educator

Babs Hogan, also known as the Healthy Cheese Lady, is a cheese nutrition researcher, writer, and educator. Back in 2010, she discovered that naturally-made cheeses have nutritional benefits that the common public isn't yet talking about.  She's made it her mission to spread her cheese findings far and wide, and will be releasing a book on the topic in the near future. She believes Americans will see significant health benefits from enjoying natural cheeses.  I joined Babs at a Manhattan diner one morning, and we had a great discussion about the relationship between cheese and nutrition.  

Jess: Thanks for taking the time today, Babs! Let's get right into it.  Can you tell me more about your research on the relationship between Vitamin K2 and naturally-made cheeses?

Babs: Vitamin K2 is really fascinating because I didn't know until recently that 90% of us are deficient in Vitamin K2. Vitamin K1 is the vitamin that helps with blood coagulation. But Vitamin K2 is not very well-known. So, I learned that Vitamin K2 has a lot of associations with heart disease, mental health, osteoporosis.  When you take Vitamin K2 it joins with calcium to get out of the arteries and the heart to go to the teeth and the bones.  Without Vitamin K2, calcium stays in the arteries, and that's what causes calcification and clogged arteries.  If you're taking vitamin supplements but not taking K2, it actually increases your risk of coronary disease. That's scary. K2 is a traffic director.

I had to go into the research to find out why certain cheeses were high in Vitamin K2. I found that there is a certain bacteria that the cheesemaker puts in the milk during the cheesemaking process. Most people don't know about this.

Jess: I didn't know about this and I have been a cheese specialist for eleven years.  You can know a lot about cheese and not know exactly how it's impacting the body. It's only recently that people are considering cheese as a superfood with health benefits.  It's always been associated with high cholesterol and high blood pressure.  Why was that the case?

Babs: In the late 70s, the mantra of the low-fat, high-carb diet started.  Some of the government guidelines were telling people you need to eat less fat, less calories, and eat more carbohydrates. Nina Teicholz, the author of Big Fat Surprise, uncovered a lot of interesting research (that was never published) that said whole fat foods were fine. Because most of the published research was funded by the wheat or sugar or corn industry, this [contrary research] was never published. So, basically we have been misled.  Even large medical institutions that have a lot of power are still recommending low-fat dairy.  Nina Teicholz exposed a lot of people, so she's not very popular. We are getting sicker and fatter because of that low-fat, high carb diet. I was on the board of American Heart Association and the Speakers' Board for eleven years.  I was so dedicated, I thought it was true.  Millions of people have died because of being mislead.  When I found out about this, I was furious.  I spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of weekends in my thirty-year career going to these conferences and listening to research saying that low-fat, high-carb diet was the way to go.

Jess: We do live in the United States and it is hard to figure out sometimes what is the true definition of a healthy diet because of all the special interests that influence the industry.  It would be the simplest thing for publications to acknowledge the bias when presenting the research. Otherwise, it's hard to know the source in which a lot of the information is coming from. A lot of people are waking up now and saying, "I do need to take control of my health." Each person has their specific needs on what they need to be healthy. 

Babs: I'm angry, but I'm motivated. I was a personal trainer, a college and seminar teacher.  Carbohydrate-centric diets are making people obese and diabetic. 

Jess: I think doughnuts and baked goods, breads, and pasta should be occasional treats.  My perspective is that people should be able to have that treat once and awhile, but that it shouldn't be the primary source of their diet. I think there is variation within all of it, for example sourdough bread has more microbes and healthy bacteria than sliced white bread.

Babs: Yes, I know sourdough is healthier, but I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend bread. There's a Doctor, David Perlmutter, a neurologist, who talks of the microbiome and intestinal health, especially for mental clarity and mental cognition, dementia, and Alzheimer's.  If there are certain microbes in your gut, then you're able to think more clearly. With good intestinal bacteria, your chance of delaying Amzheimer's is better. 

Catherine Donnelly, in her book Cheese Microbes, highlights certain cheese bacteria that are excellent for health. I want to find out which bacterias are healthy, and I have found several so far. 

Dr. Perelmutter has suggested 4 bacterias that are excellent for mental health.  So my research challenge is to take those 4 bacteria and go to my cheese friends and say, What cheeses does that come out as?  I'm connecting the dots. 

I want to talk to audiences and tell them cheese is healthy and then I'm going to highlight which cheese and why. 

Jess: What have you found in your research cheese and diabetes?

Babs: If you're eating a two-year old cheese, there is no sugar in cheese.  So that will help reduce the insulin-spike. If I eat sugars and carb, it will spike my insulin-levels.  Whole fat cheese with K2 also helps regulate blood sugar level

Jess: Can you profile different kinds of cheese in your upcoming book so people can try different cheeses for their varying health needs?

Babs: My goal is to have different chapters to convince people how cheese can be good for them: children, men, women, osteoporosis, mental health, athletes, diabetes, obesity.  Why is cheese good for a diabetic?  Why is cheese good for an obese person?  Why is cheese good for children?

When I'm writing I'm going to be talking to my older aunt who eats a lot of sugar.

With genetics, humans are 99.9% the same.  But in the microbiome, we could be 20 to 40% different. Why is that?  Well, diet, lifestyle, where you live, people in high-up altitudes are going to have a different microbiome than people in Ecuador.  The food incredibly influences our microbiome.  It is the number one influencer of the microbiome.

Jess: I think we also have to adjust people's perception on bacteria and mold as something positive, rather than negative.  Throughout society, we've created these quick fixes and quick measures to eliminate any kind of risk of pathogens.  But while doing that, we've eliminated all of the nutritional benefit and the natural, structural integrity of what milk is.  This is the selling point between specialty cheese and processed cheese product.  I believe the culinary-side and the health-side of cheese consumption shouldn't be separate.  If the flavor profile is affected by the fermentation process, then it makes sense that people should understand more about why a cheese tastes and smells the way that it does, so people can feel more comfortable with their sensory experience with food.  Not all cheese is the same, even the style categories. In the process of industrialization of cheese production, a lot of those fermentation benefits of cheeses were lost. The challenge is: how does fermented cheese become a lifestyle choice for people that is accessible and affordable?

Babs: How do we get people to buy the better cheeses at a higher cost?  This is how I would do it: how many chips do you buy a week, how many sodas do you buy a week, how many cheese crackers do you buy a week?  That's probably $20/week or $80/month.  I'm trying to get people to spend that on good cheese. 

Jess: If the only place you can get better quality cheese is an hour from your house, that's always challenging.  People then buy for the most shelf stable products that will last them longer.

Babs: Why not get people to make cheese at home?  Would that be better than what we buy at the store?

Jess: If you can get access to good milk then it's a great alternative.  There is an intimidation factor here if people are completely new to the process. You can start them off with simple cheeses like Ricotta and Ricotta Salata.  There's different levels of competency and how people can invest their time.  If there was a recipe that includes the healthy benefits you've been talking about, without too much upfront investment, then more people would devote themselves to it. It's currently limited now, until the point an at-home cheese cave is as possible as a bread-making machine or a yogurt-making.  That's my long-term impact goal. 

Babs: There will be 74 recipes in my book, and some will be for children to make, such as cheese curds and ricotta cheese. I want to get kids excited.  I know I'm in a little bit of a dream world here, it'll be hard to compete with television, but I have to have a goal.  This is really minimal, but if I can get one kid to believe what I'm saying, I've done something good.  As they grow up, they'll want to buy some cheese instead of Cheetos.  That's what I'm shooting for.

Dan, my husband, went to the 2010 Montreal American Cheese Society Conference, so he could learn how to make cheese at home.  He was talking non-stop about cheese when he got back.  I told him, "I don't want to talk about this stuff anymore." My husband asked me, "What is wrong with you?" I told him, "I can't eat this stuff.  It's not good for you." So he said, "You go talk to all the cheese makers and stores in Texas and you'll find out for yourself it's not bad for you." I said, "Fine, I'm going to do it, and I'm going to prove that you are wrong."  I was very stubborn about it. 

It took me two years to get through Texas. I interviewed people.  It was so much fun.  I learned so much from these people.  About two to three interviews in, I  realized I was going to be wrong. It just didn't take that long. So that's how it started.  The Texas Cheese Tour was my effort to prove him wrong.  And I fell on my face, joyfully. 

Cheese, it has changed my life. Eliminating child obesity is my goal, and cheese is the avenue to get there.

Jess: It's a great avenue because it's a common medium and most people are obsessed with cheese, actually. 

Babs: Cheese makes me happy, too.  The door is open for conversation. I could wear this shirt every day for the rest of my life, and I might actually. 

Read on to learn how to build a healthy cheese board! 


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