When Cheese isn’t Cheese

Can making food healthier lead to an identity crisis?

Have you ever thought about what makes up your favorite cheese? And how it was made?

We all want to enjoy food that tastes great. Ask any American what their favorite food is, chances are they’ll tell you something delicious… but not necessarily healthy. Pizza, for example, is one of America’s favorite foods — according to some studies, Americans eat 3 billion pizzas a year. That’s 350 slices of pizza every second!

But can pizza be healthier? And if so, how?

Many pizza companies are certainly trying, but tinkering with the ingredients of an established favorite is a risky game, and not just because you jeopardize the flavor that many people already know and love. All foods and food ingredients follow strict regulations, but there are also certain foods that must follow standards of identity.

Standards of identity are essentially FDA or USDA recipes for a range of foods from chocolate to pepperoni. These standards were created back in the 1930's as a way to assure people that the food they were buying really was what it said it was. Remember, this was a time decades before the rules for ingredient labeling and nutrition information that we know today.

So, back to pizza. As we all know, pizza is topped with cheese — a food that needs to meet a standard of identity. Different types of cheese have different standards. In order to label your product as containing that type of cheese, you have to ensure that it meets the parameters established in its standard.

Pizza can be made healthier — but maintaining integrity is also vital

Why does this complicate the issue of making a pizza more healthful? Well, reducing salt and fat from pizza overall means reducing those elements from each ingredient of the pie. To reduce fat, you may look at the cheesy topping and decide to reduce the amount of fat in that part of the pizza. If that’s what you decide, you have to make sure you don’t go too far.

Fat is a natural part of milk and therefore of cheese. Removing too much fat from cheese means that the food no longer matches the standards of identity, which often require a minimum amount of milk-fat. Then, your cheese pizza would suddenly require a changed ingredient listing that says something along the lines of “low fat dairy product” — doesn’t sound as tasty as cheese, does it?

If you’ve reduced all the fat you can from the cheese, then you’ve got to look elsewhere on the pizza to make nutritional improvements. Perhaps in a meaty topping, in the pizza sauce, or in the dough. Either way — there’s only so far you can go without compromising the food’s essential character.

As brands such as DiGiorno, TombStone, Jack’s, and California Pizza Kitchen move towards removing artificial flavors and reducing sodium, there are many innovators behind the scenes figuring out the best ways to make reductions without infringing on standards or heavily affecting taste.

What’s a pizza without real cheese?

Food companies like Nestlé have supported recent FDA guidelines on sodium reduction goals — and these goals are ambitious. Over the course of 10 years, innovators will need to find healthy solutions to reduce the salt content of food without damaging taste. So, we all have an exciting challenge on our hands!

This is the challenge of food reformulation. Making real changes for the betterment of health, while maintaining food integrity and great flavor.

After all, as much as we want our pizza to be better for us, don’t we all want our cheese to actually be…cheese?

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