The scientific reason cheese is like your ex. And a 'grown up' Mac Cheese

My best friend is getting married. I think I need to type that out a few more times before it sinks in. My best friend is getting married. Yes, the same best friend that, at my 13th birthday gave a toast to cereal, “who never gets mentioned in the toast”. The same best friend that vowed to only date Spanish men named Alejandro (ironically, her hubby to-be is a blonde haired, blued eyed Aussie-Lebanese). The same best friend who served me a bowl of ice-cream and Coke for dessert on our first “play date”. Yes, the milestones in our lives suggest we’re growing up, and can no longer stalk cute schoolboys on trains like we once did. 

We’ve shared a lot over the years. We’ve cried over boys, worked our way through hideous outfits and haircuts, and contemplated the big things in life (career decisions at 18) and the smaller things (shall we take cute guy at the bar up on his offer for a drink?). She taught me that “ezacly” is pronounced “exactly”  and I taught her that a slice of white bread does not make for a nutritious breakfast. Sure, things have changed over the years, and it looks like no matter how hard we fight it, things will continue to change. But I know this much: no matter how many guys come or go, no matter how many babies are popped out, how many or cringe-worthy outfits are worn, our love of cheese will never falter. 

A catch up between us is never without cheese. Brie, parmesan, the fruit variety- we don’t discriminate. Why, we could (and often do) talk and eat cheese all day. We’ve yet to watch the movie “I want someone to eat cheese with” whilst eating copious amounts of cheese, but it’s on the to-do list. And we are so not alone, I mean really, how could you NOT like cheese?

When you delve a little more into cheese (metaphorically, although literally, a fondue pool would be downright amazing), you will find there may be a very good scientific reason for this. There is a simply proposal that goes a little something like this: The main protein in milk, casein, when broken down forms a peptide called  β-casomorphin.  β-casomorphin can bind to opioid receptors, which, in theory, will produce the same feelings to when morphine is ingested and also binds to these receptors. So cheese is like a drug, addictive and euphoric. And a theory to WHY we become addicted to this is so that as infants, we continue to suckle breastmilk for nourishment. But if you look beyond a standard Google search, the research isn’t that simple. A review of studies into this found a few things, that make this much more complicated:

1. Just like humans have different variants of genes, so too do cows. You may have heard of A1 and A2 milk- they’re two combinations of the casein gene (the one in cheese that breaks down to give β-casomorphin). Cows with the A2 gene do not easily release β-casomorphin, compared to A1 cows. In normal milk, there is a mixture of milk from cows with A1 or A2 genes, hence there will be differing amounts of the ability to release the β-casomorphin.  

2. It appears that fresh unprocessed milk does not contain β-casomorphin, whilst the processing involved in making fermented milk or cheese can create β-casomorphin. However, there is little information about the actual amounts generated in this process, as well as how stable these are once made.

3. To create opioid sensations, the β-casomorphin needs to pass out of the intestine, into the blood, and through the blood-brain barrier. As yet, it is not known if this can actually occur, due to the size of the protein. 

So, whilst some vegan websites are LOVING the fact that on the surface they can say milk= drugs= addiction, the science of cheese is like that ex you’re trying to forget about- much more exciting, but much more complicated. 

But away from all the research, cheese is often enjoyed in larger amounts than our waistlines would like. 20g of a standard cheese is a small wedge or a thin slice, and this has a similar amount of energy (or kilojoules) to a slice of bread. So when you've topped two water crackers at a party with cheese, it’s like you have just eaten a tomato sandwich. Not that we should start “fearing” cheese the way we’re “fearing” so many foods these days… sugar… gluten… carbs… but if you eat cheese sandwiches every day, put handfuls on top of your lasagne regularly, and can easily go through a camembert wheel at a party, your cholesterol probably isn’t loving you.

In the past I’ve made it clear I think ricotta cheese is the bomb. So versatile, and with 1/3 the energy and fat of standard cheese. I also think Mac Cheese is the bomb. In a past life (AKA ‘Childhood’, when kilojoules didn’t exist) the highlight of many weekends was adding milk, butter, cheese power and Simpsons shaped pasta to a saucepan and letting the magic occur. 

Growing up means leaving behind those “good for the weekend” guys and finding ones that won’t break your heart. It also means accepting that if it comes out of a box and has multiple sachets, it’s not cooking. So, as I prepare to stand beside my bestie as she says “I do”, I share with you a ‘grown ups’ Mac Cheese: Ricotta, Pumpkin and Gruyere ‘Mac Cheese’. The ricotta gives the creaminess without a buttery béchamel sauce, and using a strong, ‘smelly’ cheese means you need only a small amount to pack a punch. Yes, we’re growing up and yes, we will always love cheese, but, at least whilst there is a wedding dress to fit in to, we’ll be sticking to the ricotta kind of cheese for the most part.

I guess some changes aren’t all that bad.