As a child of the 80’s not once did I question where my cheese came from. My taste buds were having too much fun with the latest pizza as advertised on TV, cheese crackers, cheese strings, and cheese burgers, to name a few. This foodie fun never lasted for long. Instead my love for dairy foods resulted in many fearful wheezing episodes and visits to the Emergency room. I was eventually diagnosed with asthma. The cause, as my concerned parents and I found out, was rooted in a number of intrinsic and extrinsic triggers — dairy products including cheese was one of them. Dairy, would keep me up at night with ear infections as a child, and would result in intestinal pain, asthma attacks, along with sinus infections. As an advocate for my health and well-being, somewhere along the way I started to question.
The Evolution of Cheese
The story of cheese is one that starts with the domestication of milk-producing animals and the accidental fermentation of stored milk, however its specific true origins are unknown. What we do know is that cheese making is an art and has been a diversely valued process throughout Europe and the Middle East for thousands of years. Its craft and variety’s became a source of trade and was introduced to North and South America by European emigrants.
From cheese making within the family, to small-scale farm production, today’s best selling cheese in America is far from its authentic origins. From cheddar to marble, zero fat to low-fat, to cheese slices and strings, the making of cheese includes heat, processing, and chemicals, which alters the whole foods molecular body and spirit in less than desirable ways.
The evolutionary nature of cheese has largely morphed into a machine-made product. Food coloring is added for an orange glow (“Cheese isn’t naturally orange?!”), fat is replaced with increased amounts of whey, casein, and lactose, and heat is used for pasteurization in lieu of valuable enzymes. This along with increased cheese consumption in general may very well be why one may suffer from gastro-intestinal symptoms after eating cheese.
Dairy Allergy Vs. Dairy Sensitivity
According to allopathic and complementary medicine, dairy products are one of the most common food sensitivities today. A true dairy allergy is associated with a hypersensitivity reaction of the immune system to dairy proteins such as casein and/or whey, whereas intolerant individuals often lack the ability to produce lactase, which is required for lactose digestion. Dairy intolerance is often more common within certain ethnicities and for those with gluten intolerance since dairy proteins are strong cross-reactors.
Symptoms associated with dairy consumption include:
- Ear infections
- Abdominal and/or musculoskeletal pain
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Difficulty breathing
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Water retention
- Skin conditions
- Sinus inflammation
- Headaches or migraines
- Baby colic
- Altered brain chemistry
Inflammatory Constituents in Dairy:
- Casein proteins
- Enzyme inhibitors (protease inhibitors)
- Gluten cross-reactors
- Histamine containing
- Mailard reaction products
- Mucous producing
- Natural growth factors (IGF-1)
- Artificial growth hormones
- Peptite opiods
- Pre-hormone 5-alpha-pregnanedione
- Whey proteins
Life With Cheese
Symptoms as listed above are to be aware of, however it is possible that cheese can be a healthful part of your primal lifestyle. Although dairy including cheese isn’t considered ‘paleo’ it is seen in a positive light through traditional dietary research as gathered from the renowned Weston A. Price Foundation who promotes the consumption of raw milk and raw cheese as a part of an overall healthy diet. Mark Sisson, who developed the Primal diet, too includes dairy products such as plain yogurt, cheese, and butter.
Benefits of pastured (grass fed) and raw dairy:
- Raw dairy is a whole food and contains lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose.
- Homemade yogurt and kefir are rich in gut-friendly bacteria, which feed on the dairy sugar molecule lactose. Lactose is then converted to lactic acid, making the food more digestible and giving the product a ‘tangy’ taste.
- An excellent source of calcium.
- A source of CLA, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin A, Beta Carotene, and butyric acid (in pastured ghee).
- Promotes bone and teeth health.
- Pastured, happy animals and happy farms means the animals are less likely to carry disease.
- Antibiotic, hormone, and mailard reaction product-free.
Through tracking unpleasant signs and symptoms one may wish to investigate further to rule out suspected food triggers. If you suffer from a severe allergic reaction to dairy this may mean eliminating dairy foods from your diet for life, whereas if you discover that you’re lactose intolerant you may be able to re-introduce certain types, for example probiotic rich home-made yogurt or kefir, after a period of avoidance. Dairy sensitivity co-insides with gut inflammation or leaky gut and imbalanced flora. Avoidance of this food completely is necessary to heal gastrointestinal tissue and to re-build healthy flora. Working with a skilled practitioner can help guide you through an elimination-re-introduction protocol with goals of discovering dietary causes related to your physiological symptoms. Suspected food triggers are commonly eliminated for 4 – 12 weeks following re-introduction of foods and symptom tracking.
Dairy Free Cheese
Never did I wonder what life without cheese would be like. I was worried that I would not get my calcium intake, which I now know is plentiful in whole foods such as sardines, canned salmon with bones, and leafy greens. When I first eliminated cheese I would rely on dairy-free products, listing to a total of 18 ingredients, and which would cause just as intense symptoms within my body as real cheese produced. Nevertheless, my creative spirit and joy for cooking inspired this dairy-free cheese recipe made out of five simple ingredients. Known on instagram as #zucchinicheese, I hope you can find pleasure as I have in the making, eating, and sharing of this nutrient-dense cheese alternative. Please comment in my comment box below to let me know if you try my recipe!
If you are dairy-free, have a big ‘ol garden zucchini, or are working to include vegetable diversity into your meals, then this recipe is for you. Simple and nutritious, ingredients list to a total of five to eight whole foods. Creamy with a hint of ‘mozza cheese’, zucchini cheese may very well become your favorite new healthy staple as a snack, topper, or side. If you desire thin squares you can set the following recipe in a parchment paper lined large baking pan.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 5 – 8 minutes
Setting time: 20 – 90 minutes
Yields: Desired amount of squares, as set in pan as directed below
Cheddar Cheese Block – to fill approximately half of a bread pan
- 3/4 cup carrot or butternut squash, fine diced (used for ‘cheddar’ color)
- 3 cups zucchini or summer squash, about 3 small-medium zucchini, peeled and sliced or diced, or cauliflower florets
- ¾ cup water, for steaming and to drain afterwards
- 3 – 4 tbsp. coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, or ghee
- 3 – 4 tsp. lemon juice or acv
- 1 – 1 ½ tsp. sea salt, or to taste
- 6 – 7 tbsp. Vital Proteins Gelatin or Great Lakes gelatin (red can)
- 1 garlic clove, optional
- 1 dairy-free probiotic capsule, optional
- Bring water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add diced carrot or squash and top with the peeled zucchini or cauliflower (or for non-cheddar, use solely zucchini or cauliflower). Cover and simmer on medium low heat for 5 – 8 minutes.
- Drain off the water completely.
- Add your steamed vegetables to a blender then add the oil, lemon juice or apple cider vinegar, optional nutritional yeast, garlic, and sea salt. Blend on high speed.
- With your blender set on low speed, sprinkle the gelatin into the mixture. Blend on high for one last whizz until smooth.
- If you want to add probiotics to your ‘cheese’ wait for the mixture to cool so that it is no longer hot to touch in the blender. Add the probiotics and blend on low.
- Pour into your pan and refrigerate over night or for at least three hours to set. Alternatively to speed things up you can freeze to set for 20 minutes before refrigerating.
- Cut into squares, cheese slice, dice, melt, or grate. Use on protein patty’s, with veggies, in salads, and use incorporated into snack plates.
- Wrap and refrigerate, or store slices in an airtight container. For best flavor, consume within 7 days. Enjoy!
- Optional additions: 1 – 2 Tbsp. nutritional yeast, garlic and onion powder, fresh chopped basil, and other favorite herbs or spices. Add fresh herbs and mix on low.
- For a low fodmap omit garlic, cauliflower, and onion. Enjoy 1/2 cup per serving.
- Zucchini cheese as a snack: this recipe makes the perfect sweet-free and satiating snack for adults and kids. Set the ‘cheese’ in fun molds to add to your child’s lunch box for nutritious variety throughout the week.
Does it actually taste like cheese? Some people love it, whereas some need to tweak the seasoning and/or vegetable to adjust to personal preference. The most popular variety is made with cauliflower, carrot, garlic, and basil or onion.
Zucchini cheese variations:
Garlic dilly zucchini cheese
Garlic-chive zucchini cheese
Zucchini cheese with fresh parsley
Nacho zucchini cheese
Agar set cauliflower-coconut cheese
Does it actually melt? The cheese will melt if it is accompanied with a warm meal or if you grate the block ‘cheese’ onto vegetables or onto a ‘meatza’ in the last few minutes of baking. Warning: Over-melting occurs if your food is too hot or if you leave it in the oven for too long, which results in cheese sauce.
Can you use other vegetables? You can use vegetables as mentioned, along with parsnip, turnip, or any root vegetable. You may want to experiment with different vegetables to see what you prefer most.
What is gelatin? Gelatin is the purified protein derived by the selective hydrolysis of collagen form the skin, the connective tissue and/or bones of animals. Great Lakes Gelatin provides you with the highest types of grass-fed derived edible gelatins. It is a good source of protein, assists in healing the gut, promotes healthy skin, joints, hair and nails. This recipe calls for the type of gelatin that comes in the red can.
What is a good gelatin substitute? Agar can be used for a vegetarian and vegan substitute, and for those who prefer not to use gelatin. The texture is not the same and I personally prefer to set the veggie cheese with gelatin. Use 1/3 – ½ of the called for amount of gelatin for an agar powder equivalent and add this to the water while the veggies are steaming. Do not drain, add to the blender, and proceed with directions.
Would nutritional yeast add to the flavor? What is it? You do not have to use nutritional yeast though it does enhance the flavor since it naturally has a cheese-like taste. Nutritional Yeast is produced by culturing a yeast in a nutrient medium for several days. The primary ingredient in the growth medium is glucose, usually sourced from sugarcane or beet molasses. I have learned that since nutritional yeast is deactivated, it is not a problem for those who are experiencing candida overgrowth. Furthermore, this food is very nutrient rich: it is often fortified with B12 and iron, and is a source of fiber, amino acids, B vitamins, selenium, and potassium. Nutritional yeast is not autoimmune-protocol friendly.
What do I do with the zucchini peels? Use to produce a ‘green cheese’ or cut them into small pieces to be incorporated into vegetable meals or soups.
Does it freeze well? Although I have not tried this I’ve heard that it freezes well from others who have done so.
- Brief History of Cheese. Retrieved August 18th, 2014, from http://www.nationalhistoriccheesemakingcenter.org/cheesemaking-history.aspx
- Bateson-Koch, Carolee, DC ND. Allergies: Disease in Disguise. Summertown, TN: Books Alive, 1994.
- Malterre, Tom, MS CN and Segersten, Alissa. The Elimination Diet: Discover The Foods That Are Making You Sick And Tired – And Feel Better Fast. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2015.