It all started because of a simple mistake, a tiny little oversight. I needed feta cheese for the salad I was making. I had no feta cheese. A pot of water was coming to a boil on the stove. I ran out of the apartment, leaving the stove on, sure I'd come home to an apartment either burned down or, like, covered in hot water? I'm not sure what the worst that can happen to over-boiled water is.
The grocery store next door had a few kinds of bad to middling feta, the kind that's sometimes packaged with herbs already in it. I grabbed one, bought it, went home, the apartment was fine, the cat's fur had not been scalded off by a tidal wave of excessively boiled water. I opened the cheese and had a bite.
It tasted like fucking garbage.
I had bought the low-fat variety by mistake.
Low-fat feta cheese, common in every grocery store in America, is a spongy, dry, flavorless insult to the superior flavor and equal texture of wet styrofoam. It is at its best only reminiscent of, but not an example of, actual cheese. It should never be bought, it should never be eaten. I vowed that day to never make that mistake again.
And from there it spiralled: Why would I buy any low-fat cheese? Wait a second: why would I buy low-fat yogurt? Low-fat milk? Soon I began replacing all my dairy with full-fat versions.
Low-fat dairy—by which I mean lower-fat versions of typically higher-fat dairy and not any of the naturally low-fat dairy products like ricotta—is a fairly recent phenomenon. The roots of the trend lie with Ancel Keys, a scientist who specialized in the study of dietary fats and their effect on the human body. He conducted a study now known as the Seven Countries Study, in which he compared the diets and lifestyles of the residents of seven countries in North America, Europe, and Asia to find their effects on coronary health. His findings had a profound effect on the understanding of health in the United States; the study was one of the first to point out the correlation between obesity and heart disease, between exercise and health, and between blood pressure and heart attacks.
Keys formulated the concept of the "Mediterranean diet," and he was the first American to heavily favor vegetable fats like olive oil over animal fats. The American Heart Association jumped on the study, and in the 1950s he began appearing on TV to explain his work and popularize his views, most of which are still widely held today.
Keys's screeds against animal fat became not just popular but legally binding in the United States, thanks to pressure from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To this day, despite mounting evidence, which you had better believe I'll get into later, the Department of Agriculture requires school lunches to use no-fat or low-fat dairy—manifesting mostly as skim milk and lowfat shredded cheese for dishes like pizza. It also currently recommends that consumers of all ages "switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk," and also recommends low-fat or nonfat cheeses and yogurts. This benefits nobody in any way.
That's not a dig against Keys; his work was seminal and incredibly important, and though his thoughts on dairy fat are now very controversial and probably on their way to being debunked, he undoubtedly saved the lives of millions of idiot Americans who'd still be eating steak every day if not for some scary commercials. Let's take a moment of silence to honor Dr. Keys, who died in 2004.
OK, now let's talk about how he was totally wrong about dairy.
The problem with Keys's campaign against dairy fat is not that dairy is completely good for you and that we should all eat wheels of Camembert for dinner. The problem is that Americans either could not or didn't feel like eating dairy fats in moderation. We still wanted, and want, to take enormous chomps out of a log of extra-sharp cheddar; we still want to eat tubs of ice cream; we still want to put butter on everything that can conceivably go well with butter, which it turns out is everything.
Instead of preaching moderation, the Department of Agriculture pushed dairy manufacturers to churn out reduced-fat and reduced-salt dairy products, for consumers to keep gobbling in huge amounts.
The dairy manufacturers, some reluctantly, did just that. The problem is, you can't just reduce the fat or salt in dairy products like cheese and milk and yogurt. Fat and salt aren't only for flavor; they're preservatives, stabilizers, chemical agents that help the living cultures in cheese and yogurt especially to survive and stay fresh.
Over the past few weeks, I've been slowly phasing out low-fat and non-fat dairy from my diet. I'd always struggled with my weight, so I had always bought skim milk; it seemed an easy way to cut a few calories out of my diet. After the feta cheese incident, I upgraded to 1 percent. It was noticeably better. Now I'm at 2 percent. It's delicious. It's rich and flavorful.
The 2 percent milk has about 40 more calories per cup than skim, but I no longer eat three or four bowls of Special K in a row; I stop at one, because I'm full. Full of delicious dairy fat, not puffed grain cereal. I did the same for yogurt: only full-fat Greek or Icelandic, now. And before I buy cheese I read the packaging very carefully. It's not just for flavor; it's for my health.
If you remove fat and salt, typically you have to add something else—partly for flavor, partly for texture, and partly to keep the dairy product looking like a recognizable dairy product. The replacements for salt are often substances like potassium chloride, which this excellent New York Times piece points out tastes salty but also bitter and awful. So you have to add some other flavoring agent to balance out your salt substitute, and so on and so forth, moving further away from the basic appealing taste of dairy the whole time.
Replacements for fat are twofold, and they're both bad: water and sugar. Water is bad because bad bacteria thrive in it; cheese with a higher moisture content tends to spoil faster. Sugar is bad because it's sugar, and if we're trying to be healthy, why are we adding sugar?
This is especially a problem for nonfat and low-fat yogurt. American-style yogurt, the nearly drinkable variety popularized by brands like Dannon, is incredibly high in sugar, water, and usually flavorings, because it masks the inferior inherent flavor of reduced-fat dairy.
Compare that with something like a good Greek or Icelandic yogurt—strained varieties typically higher in fat but with nearly no sugar at all. The flavor is intensely milky and the texture much heavier than American-style yogurt, so you fill up quickly, eating less—and without all the garbage sugar and dyes and flavorings.
That's the same with ice cream; reduced-fat ice cream is sometimes made with lower-fat or nonfat milk, which means it has a higher ratio of water to fat, which means it'll freeze into ice crystals unless it's thoroughly fucked with. Some kinds of ice cream just have a ton of air whipped into them, which decreases the fat content in the same way you can make a burger healthier by just pretending to chew air for the second half of your meal.
Sometimes we do have to compromise with reduced-fat dairy. All milk is reduced-fat to some degree; melting butter on your cereal, or even using something like heavy cream, is sort of disgusting. The nonfat Fage yogurt is weirdly good, though more sour and a little more watery and crumbly than the full-fat. But the point is, if you're trying to get healthy, reducing your dairy fat intake is not the place to do it.
Here's some science: A recent study found that reducing fat in the diet has a far inferior effect to reducing carbs, which is why it's probably smart to eat less cereal with fattier milk. A few years back, a meta-analysis of studies looking into the connection between saturated fat (like the kind found in dairy) and heart disease found no clear link between the two. Instead, it found that saturated fats don't have one clear effect; they can raise the good kind of cholesterol and lower blood fats like triglycerides, which can help the heart. That doesn't mean that full-fat dairy is great for you, just that the body is not so simple as to take all fats you eat and treat them as murderous enemies. This was a highly controversial meta-analysis, but nobody really agrees that reduced-fat anything is a decent solution.
Well, except the American Heart Association. The AHA hasn't budged from its support of Ancel Keys's no-animal-fat thing, which, like, whatever, fine. You don't have to listen to them if you don't want to.
We can all pretty much agree that low-fat and nonfat dairy mostly taste terrible, but we eat lots of things that taste terrible in the interest of health (have you TRIED kale juice? It's repulsive). The key is that our understanding of nutritive health is moving generally in the direction of simplicity, which is nice, because it also tastes better.
To get to a Dannon raccoon-strangling conical cup of nonfat Key Lime Pie yogurt, you have to wildly manipulate the original yogurt material, which is saying a lot for a product that by definition has to be infected with bacteria. The evidence is starting to indicate that, well, maybe don't? Maybe don't take away the salt and the fat that we like so much. Maybe don't replace them with water and potassium chloride and sugar sugar sugar. Maybe just eat a regular yogurt. It tastes really good.
[Image by Tara Jacoby]