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Research Aids Cheese Treats
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Holiday guests may pick over or guess about some hors d'oeuvres, but cheese trays provide a comfortable "safe" place for nibblers to return to.
Many cheese varieties contain a protein value equal to red meat. In today's health-conscious world, however, many people shy away from cheese because of its fat content. Cheeses at the top end of the fat scale can have a fat content up to 75 percent, while most are about 40 to 50 percent fat.
Problems with taste and texture have limited the acceptance of recently developed low-fat cheeses.
Research at Mississippi State University by Noel Hall, dairy plant superintendent, has yielded a low-fat Edam cheese that has overcome the traditional problems by extending the ripening process.
"We also hope to improve the taste and texture of low-fat versions of other popular types of cheese," Hall said.
Food scientist MaryAnne Drake is conducting one of the projects. She is working to develop a low-fat cheddar cheese similar in taste and texture to the full-fat cheddars that are among the most popular with consumers. An additional goal of her research is to improve the yield of low-fat cheese.
Low yields from the manufacturing process are a problem for producers and ultimately lead to higher prices for low-fat cheese. Drake said the key to solving the problems with low-fat cheddar could be the addition of soy lecithin.
"Soybeans are the No. 1 oilseed in the world and lecithin is produced as a by-product during the processing of soybean oil," Drake said. "Soy lecithin is currently used in many applications, including as an emulsifier in cakes, margarines, chocolates, and other foods. It has not, however, been used commercially in natural or processed cheese."
Improved flavor and production of cheddar cheese with 75 percent reduced fat are the goals of Drake's research.
"Fat is important in the flavor and texture of cheese," she said. "The reasons for the importance of fat may be seen by looking at the microstructure of full-fat and low-fat cheese. Full-fat cheese has a protein matrix interspersed liberally with fat globules, while reduced and low fat cheese have large stretches of uninterrupted protein with just a few fat globules scattered between."
The MAFES food scientist said lecithin may aid in fat dispersion and incorporation of water in reduced fat cheeses.
The study with the use of soy lecithin in low-fat cheddar natural cheese at Mississippi State began in 1996 with three types of soy lecithin -- granular water dispersible, hydrogenated and liquid oil soluble.
"We are looking at soy lecithins from different companies because different brands of lecithin have varying degrees of flavor," Drake said.
A flavor and texture evaluation by an expert sensory panel was conducted after the cheeses made from the various brands of lecithins had aged 1 week. A second evaluation was made after one month of aging.
"The texture and the body of the reduced fat cheddar produced with soy lecithin compares well with full-fat cheddar," said sensory panel member Kyle Jensen. "Additional research is needed to perfect the flavor, but the outlook is promising for a product that will have good consumer acceptance."
The treatments that received the highest marks from the sensory panel have been incorporated into a large-scale study. Batches of the cheeses have been made and are being aged for three months. After aging, they will undergo instrumental and sensory evaluation.