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Cheese Generally High in Protein and Calcium 90% of Samples Also Found to be “High-fat” or “High-sodium” Beware of Consumption Amount to Avoid Health Risks

  • 2021.05.17

Cheese is a nutritious delicacy which has been regarded as a rich source of protein and calcium. Cheese tasting is also a kind of culinary experience in its own right. Besides the most common processed cheese, a wide variety of specialty cheeses has become available at deli counters in recent years. The Consumer Council tested 40 models of cheese and found that despite 90% (36 samples) being “high-protein” and “high-calcium” foods, over 70% (29 samples) were simultaneously “high-fat”, over 60% (25 samples) were “high-sodium”, while 45% (18 samples) were high in both fat and sodium. Consumers should eat in moderation to avoid health risks such as obesity or high blood pressure resulting from long-term excess intake of fat and sodium.

40 samples of cheese were included in the test, including 28 samples of natural cheese such as cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan, and goat/sheep’s milk cheese, etc., with retail prices ranged from $15 to $71 per 100g. The other 12 tested samples were processed cheese, including high-calcium processed cheese, high-calcium reduced fat processed cheese, processed cheese for kids, and smoked cheese, etc., with retail prices ranged from $12.45 to $45 per 100g. Test items covered preservatives, microbiological and nutrient contents, etc.

Natural cheese is made directly from fresh milk, with most types adopting lactic acid fermentation. A small proportion of natural cheese is non-fermented and instead appropriate acidic substances are used for coagulation. Processed cheese is produced using natural cheese as raw material, emulsified with food emulsifiers, further flavoured with seasonings, spices or salt, then heated, cooled down and shaped into various forms.

The test confirmed that cheese was high in protein and calcium contents. 90% (36 samples) of the tested cheeses reached “high-protein” level (containing no less than 12g protein per 100g sample) and “high-calcium” level (containing no less than 240mg calcium per 100g solid food sample). Upon comparing the nutrient content per 100g sample, the natural cheese category showed a higher average protein content (22.5g) than the processed cheese category (17.6g), with parmesan containing the highest average protein content (30.0g) while cheddar ranked second (23.0g). On the other hand, the average calcium content of the processed cheese category (876mg) was higher than that of the natural cheese category (633mg). Amongst all, high-calcium reduced fat processed cheese had the highest average calcium content (1,450mg) and parmesan was the runner-up (962mg).

Many parents like to include cheese in their children’s diet as a source of protein and calcium to promote growth. However, the test revealed that processed cheese for kids had the lowest average protein content (14.0g). In this category, the processed cheese for kids sample with the lowest protein content (10.4g) also had the lowest calcium content (199mg) amongst all samples. 1 standard serving (12g) of this sample for children would only provide a calcium intake of 24mg, which is only 4% of the reference daily intake (600mg) for 1 to 3-year-old infants as recommended by the Chinese Nutrition Society. Except those with nutrition claims, it is not mandated by legislation to include calcium content in the labelling information, but calcium content is an important deciding factor for consumers when purchasing cheese products. In view of this, the Council urges manufacturers to enhance the transparency of product information on a voluntary basis.

Salt is often added during the production of natural cheese as it not only regulates the taste, but also kills miscellaneous bacteria which are not involved in fermentation, helps control the flavour, removes whey, and neutralises bitterness. However, test results revealed that over 25 samples reached the “high-sodium” food level (i.e. over 600mg sodium content per 100g solid food sample). On comparing the content per 100g sample, the processed cheese category had an average sodium content (1,194mg) which exceeded that of the natural cheese category (595mg) by onefold. Amongst these, 1 sample of high-calcium reduced fat processed cheese had the highest sodium content of 1,660mg. Based on a 2,000-calorie diet for an adult, consumption of 1 slice (20.8g) of this cheese sample will incur a sodium intake of around 345mg, amounting to 17% of the daily maximum intake limit (2,000mg sodium) recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Therefore, despite the said sample having a smaller portion size (20.8g), consumers still need to keep their eating habits in check and avoid consuming too many slices at a time.

The test results also showed that over 70% (29 samples) reached the “high-fat” food level (i.e. over 20g total fat content per 100g sample). Upon comparing the content per 100g sample, the natural cheese category had a higher average total fat content (26.7g) than the processed cheese category (22.6g). 1 sample of sheep’s milk cheese had the highest total fat content of 37.7g; should an adult consume 1 portion (26g) of this sample, they would have a total fat intake of 9.8g, equivalent to around 16% of the daily intake limit (60g) recommended by WHO. In addition, although 2 samples of high-calcium processed cheese were labelled as “reduced fat”, their total fat contents were as high as 14g and 13.4g respectively, not belonging to “low-fat” food (containing no more than 3g total fat per 100g sample).

Trans fat is formed naturally in milk products, such as cheese. It is converted from unsaturated fatty acids by bacteria in ruminant animals’ digestive tracts. The test samples showed a great disparity in terms of their trans fat content, with an 8.5 times difference between the samples with the highest (1.9g) and lowest (0.2g) trans fat content. Based on the content per 100g sample, 1 parmesan cheese sample had the highest trans fat content; if an adult consumed 1 portion (26g) of this sample, they would have a trans fat intake (0.5g) amounting to 23% of the maximum daily intake limit (2.2g) recommended by WHO.

Many types of cheese products naturally contain organic substances such as benzoic acid, propionic acid, etc. These acidic substances can be used as preservatives to inhibit the growth of other microorganisms such as mould. In the test, 45% (18 samples) were found to contain benzoic acid, 2 samples contained propionic acid, and 9 samples had sorbic acid. These preservatives were generally low in toxicity, and the detected amount were all within the limit stated in the Preservatives in Food Regulation in Hong Kong, indicating that regular consumption amounts will not impose health risks, but consumers allergic to such preservatives should pay extra heed. Besides, 2 samples of prepackaged cheese did not indicate on their packaging the presence of propionic acid and sorbic acid, though it was not possible to determine whether the preservatives were artificially added or naturally occurring. The information of the samples in question was referred to the Centre for Food Safety for follow-up action.

The test also revealed that 1 non-fermented mozzarella sample contained an aerobic colony count of 13,000,000 CFU/g, classified as unsatisfactory hygiene conditions according to the Interpretation Guidance in the Microbiological Guidelines for Food (equal to or more than 10,000,000 CFU/g). As cheese sold at specialty cheese counters require a series of on-site handling procedures, such as slicing and packaging, the Council urges manufacturers to pay heed to the storage temperature during transit, the cleanliness of food handling tools, as well as the hygiene of staff, in order to ensure the quality and food safety of the cheese.

The Council also inspected the labelling information of the prepackaged cheese samples and found that 4 samples showed a significant difference in nutrient content in the test than declared, exceeding the acceptable tolerance range in technical guidelines. 4 samples declared 0g/100g in trans fat but the test results showed they had more than 0.3g/100g trans fat. Besides, 1 sample even included 2 different ingredient lists on its packaging. The information of the above samples was passed to the Centre for Food Safety for follow-up action. Manufacturers should also promptly improve their labelling information to allow consumers to make informed choices.

When purchasing and consuming cheese, consumers should pay heed to the following:

- When purchasing cheese sliced on order at specialty counters, consumers with food allergies should pay extra attention to the detailed ingredient lists, if any, to avoid consuming allergenic substances;
- When purchasing prepackaged cheese products, read the food labels carefully. It is recommended that cheese made from pasteurised milk be selected. High-risk groups, such as pregnant women, the elderly, infants and those with a weak immune system, should refrain from consuming cheese products that are not confirmed to have been pasteurised;
- Take note of the expiry date and consume promptly upon opening. Store the cheese according to the labelled instructions, or have it wrapped in cling film or aluminium foil, sealed in a food container or wooden box, then stored in the fridge. The base of the food container can be lined with vegetables to prevent the cheese from drying out and cracking;
- Due to the relatively strong scent of cheese, avoid storing it together with foods that absorb smell easily, such as red wine and bean curd.

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