As a child, I was a picky eater. Except when it came to cheese.
I eventually gained an appetite for other foods, but a decision to go vegetarian in my teens made cheese my focal point. It was my guilty pleasure, and one of my sole sources of animal fat and protein. Now, in my late 30s, the kind of cheese I eat today is drastically different from what I ate not even 10 years ago. And I’m far from alone.
Melted cheese—mozzarella on pizza, cheddar on macaroni, Monterey jack in quesadillas—is a prominent part of daily diets worldwide. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Americans eat an average of 30 pounds of cheese annually. Over a third of that comes from the mozzarella in pizza, while cheddar comes in as a close second. Yet in the past decade, both the domestic and global markets for cheese have begun to shift. Changing consumer concerns has led to more discriminatory tastes in cheese. America is experiencing a collective nostalgia for the cheeses of yesteryear—less processed, farmstead brands that hail from smaller-scale, pasture-based farms rather than the corporate behemoths of industrialized agriculture that currently dominate the market.
Cheese has been around since before written human history, at least since 7,000 years ago. It is generally believed by most food historians that explorers from Asia introduced cheese and cheese-making techniques to the Romans, who in turn passed those practices to the furthest reaches of its Empire, contributing to cheese’s eventual popularity throughout much of Europe. Cheese was already a staple of the British diet, and it was part of the food supplies packed on the Mayflower when the Pilgrims set sail for the New World in 1620. But it would not be until the first cheese factory was built in New York, in 1851, that cheese would become a widespread product in the United States. 30 years later, the nation boasted nearly 4,000 dairy factories and made an estimated 216 million pounds of cheese annually.
In early 20th-century America, a large number of small, diversified farms employed nearly half of the country's working population. But while the number of U.S. farms has decreased by over 60 percent over the past century, the size of the average farm has increased by 67 percent. A major factor that contributed to this concentration in farm size was the increase in human population and expanded public transportation. As nuclear households shifted toward two-income or single-parent units, Americans developed a taste for convenient processed foods, which heavily impacted their choices in cheese.
For instance, there was the rise of laminated-looking slices of Kraft Singles sheathed in paper-thin plastic wrap and as well as Kraft’s other widely popular product, Velveeta. Packaged like a stick of butter, Velveeta is meant to be melted down to a liquid goop that early advertisements recommended smothering on everything from pasta to peanut butter sandwiches. If that wasn’t convenient enough for a consumer, Kraft also concocted Cheese Whiz. More condiment than food, it could be injected directly into the mouth if desired. Later in the 1970s, Kraft also introduced Polly-O string cheese, a snack-sized stick of low-moisture mozzarella that harried parents could hand off to their kids or stuff in lunch boxes—a treat that was as much fun to shred as to eat.
But while all of these products were cheap and easy, churning out processed cheeses to feed millions of Americans came at a price. Currently, the prevalent method of livestock management in the United States is the industrial feedlot, known in legal terms as confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. In a typical CAFO, animals are kept indoors for part or all of the year and fed a supplemental diet of grains as opposed to their natural diet of grasses. A CAFO can range from 1,000 animals to as many as 15,000. But even modest-sized CAFO dairies carry considerable environmental footprints. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a 2,000-cow dairy can generate more 240,000 pounds of manure daily. And the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization reports that animal agriculture contributes 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with cattle being the most notorious offenders.
The popularity of books like Fast Food Nation and Omnivore’s Dilemma and documentary films like Food Inc. and Cowspiracy have raised public awareness about the environmental impact of large-scale animal agriculture, contributing to a backlash against the CAFO method of dairy farming. It has also fostered a second wave of interest in organic and local food production, where cheese reigns supreme and looks and tastes nothing like the hyper-processed cheeses of my childhood.
In 2012, 825 licensed, artisan cheese producers in the U.S. provided more than 300 varieties of cheese—more than doubling the figures from six years before. Sales in the natural and specialty cheese markets are expected to reach $19 billion in 2018. And small cheesemaking facilities accounted for 46 percent of all cheesemaking establishments, up five percent since 2007. Meanwhile, the USDA reports that consumption of processed cheeses has declined by four percent. Real cheese is back.
In the specialty cheese market, goat cheese has dominated, with the American Cheese Society boasting more goat cheeses at its annual competition than cow cheeses. The number of goat dairies in the nation grew by 7.5 percent between 2007 and 2011.
Since goats are one of the first animals ever to be domesticated, they were a prevalent source of cheese for our human ancestors during the food’s infancy. Today, goat cheese is still a staple in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and South American diets, while it has only recently hit its stride in North America.
“We are now experiencing a renaissance in goat farming in this country,” says Paul Kindstedt, a cheese historian and professor at the University of Vermont. Kindstedt credits the renewed interest in goat dairying to the back-to-land movements of the early 1970s, which focused on small, sustainable farming methods. Since then, goat farming has been steadily growing, especially since the turn of the 21st century. Since goats need less water and pasture than cows and are overall a hardier animal, they have become an appealing alternative for aspiring dairy farmers who want to start or even stay small.
“Goats are easier to care for [than cows], gregarious, and don't have a lot demands while also being relatively benevolent,” Kindstedt tells me. “This makes them a perfect match for the new attitude among some farming communities that small is beautiful.”
Fans of goat cheese claim that it tends to run lower in lactose, fat, cholesterol, and calories than cheese made from cow’s milk. And while nearly 20 percent of dairy cows in the U.S. are treated with the controversial artificial growth hormone rBGH, goats are not treated with rBGH, making them an option for Americans trying to eat hormone-free. Kindstedt warns some of these advantages might be overstated; studies show that goat cheese actually has comparable levels of fat and lactose to cow cheese. Nonetheless, goat cheese may be more digestible to some cheese-lovers than cow cheese due to lower proteins in goat milk.
But there are other options for professed cheese connoisseurs, even for those who want to give up animal-based products altogether.
The number of vegans in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2009, and more than a third of American households have increased their selection of plant-based foods. Vegan cheeses have also finally come into the limelight, with launches of vegan-cheese products rising by more than 118 percent in just the past few years, according to the Mintel Group. “Basically, we’ve seen a massive rise in artisanal hand-crafted vegan cheeses in the last few years,” says Ryan Wilson, the co-owner of VeganEssentials.com, which offers the largest online selection of vegan cheeses. “It’s our fastest-growing area for food sales.”
Wilson’s sales for mass-produced vegan cheeses has increased by 70 percent this past year, while sales for “artisanal” vegan cheeses have more than doubled in the past two years. Many of these vegan alternatives are made from soy, tapioca, or nut milks like almond, cashew, or macadamia. They stretch the very definition of cheese, while still attracting former cheese lovers who have jumped on the vegan bandwagon.
Kindstedt is highly dubious that either goat or vegan cheeses will overtake the traditional domestic cheese market, which still relies almost entirely on cow’s milk. But he thinks both trends are indicative of the same cultural shift. “Many folks would like to see the end on what they consider inhumane or environmentally disruptive agricultural practices they associate with milk-producing animals,” Kindstedt explains. “It is philosophically in line with the concerns of growing segment of population about what they want food systems should look like.”
And while alternatives like vegan and goat cheeses may be just a “blip” on the horizon, Kindstedt says they have an important place in our food culture. Americans once prioritized affordability and convenience in food. But today, more consumers are embracing complex taste and purity of product, not to mention taking the environmental impact of their food choices into account—and they are willing to pay a higher price for the privilege. Cheese is a macrocosm of this trend.
And of resistance to it, too. Pizza remains the most popular dinner item in the country, and in most cases, the mozzarella melted on those pies isn’t farmstead-sourced or organic. Therein lies the beauty of cheese: Its diversity offers something for everyone, from the most selective foodie snobs to famished frat boys to fickle children who routinely resist most other foods.
This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.