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MSU Cheese Quality Determined By Process
By Marcela Cartagena
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Despite France's 400 varieties of cheese which could confuse a mouse, thousands of consumers consider Mississippi State University's scarce variety of cheeses to be among the best.
"There are so many good cheeses available to consumers, but our cheeses rank among the best," said Dr. Charles White, head of MSU's Food Science and Technology Department. "Our cheese is made with high quality raw milk from university cows."
White said MSU produces Valligret, Edam and cheddar cheeses. There are also processed cheeses, which take less time to create, such as cheese spread and jalapeno cheeses.
The quality of milk and the type of bacteria used are extremely important factors in determining the superiority of the cheese. However, other factors also affect cheese flavor. These include pasteurization temperatures and even what the cow eats. It takes much practice and experience to judge cheese, but it does not take much expertise to recognize a high quality cheese.
"Criticism of cheese quality is based on flavor, body, texture and appearance. A number of factors determine flavor and body or texture," White said.
"If the flavor is bitter, it means the cow ate strong-flavored weeds," Noel Hall, MSU dairy plant manager, said. "If it tastes like garlic or onion, it means the cow consumed wild onions or garlic. This flavor is very distinctive."
Cheese production takes several hours from testing the raw milk to sealing the finished cheese in wax.
Milk goes through a process called pasteurization in which it is partially sterilized to destroy foreign microorganisms. After pasteurization, the milk ends up in a huge vat that holds nearly 750 gallons of liquid.
Three products are added to the milk -- bacteria, color and coagulator.
"Bacteria determine the flavor of the cheese, and adding different bacteria stimulates different flavors," White said. "The color added is usually orange. Without the color, the cheese would be white."
The coagulator is a chemical known as "rennet," an enzyme that helps the milk change from its liquid form into a solid, gelatin-like form called curd.
The curd is cut into 1/4- inch cubes. The curd is heated and whey, a liquid byproduct, separates and is poured off when the cooking process is finished. What is left is cheese made from cooked curd.
"The cheese is pressed into molds, placed into a strong saline solution for two days, dried out and finally covered with wax," Hall said. "There is a lot of hand labor involved in this process."
Cheese, like all other dairy products, contains calcium which is important for bone growth. According to the National Institute of Medicine, adults should consume up to 1,300 mg of calcium daily. Bones weaken through the years, and Americans' low consumption of calcium has led to increased numbers of broken bones. Eating cheese can help meet the body's calcium requirements.
Despite cheese's immense popularity, some people avoid eating it because of the number of calories and fat grams it contains.
"From a nutrition standpoint, most people can eat cheese, if eaten in reasonable amounts," White said. "We are doing a lot of research on low-fat cheese, but it is very difficult to have a tasty cheese without the fat."
White said that part of this research is based on the use of different bacteria and fat replacements which could improve the flavor.