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Forbidden Fromage: Cheese Disease

Welcome to Forbidden Fromage, a series exploring cheesy taboos and prohibitions. Intern Johnisha Levi will look at everything from navigating kosher restrictions and hip hop MCs’ use of cheese and dairy as metaphors for illicit profit and sex to the paleo diet’s dairy prohibition. You’ll get a little history, religion, pop culture, science, and medicine along the way, as we cover thousands of years in the blink of some blog posts.

Last week, we wrapped up our examination of the kosher konundrum—what it takes to produce a kosher cheese andjust how hard it can be to find a good one. This week, we’ll be looking at a pair of book-ending pseudo-scientific theories that aren’t so fromage-friendly: humorism, the foundation of ancient Western medicine, and the Paleo diet, a contemporary diet craze.

Humorism (or humoralism) dates back to antiquity, and the writings of Greek physicians Galen and Hippocrates. According to the theory, a human body is composed of four bodily humors or fluids: black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm, which also correspond to some equally fun and colorful personality traits (choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic). According to the theory, the proportion of each fluid in the bodily influences both temperament and physical health, such that if the humors shift out of balance—say, because of the consumption of a (beloved) food like cheese—the body becomes diseased.

So how did ancient practitioners of humoral theory view cheese consumption? The historical record reveals that not all were decidedly down on our favorite dairy comestible. For instance, the Hippocratic treatise On Ancient Medicine, takes a reasonable tone on the question:

“We must not simply say, ‘Cheese is a bad food’ …Some can eat their fill of it without the slightest ill effect. Indeed, those with whom it agrees are remarkably strengthened by it.”

Score one for cheese? But not so fast…

While Regimen, part of the same Hippocratic corpus, admits that cheese is “nourishing because the fleshy part of the milk remains in it,” it is considered far from a safe food to consume. As a so-called phlegmatic substance, cheese is attributed with provoking rheums (a discharge from the eyes and nose) and catarrh (inflammation and blockage of the bodies tissues with excess phlegm). So far, this doesn’t sound like much cause for alarm, but the prognosis gets worse.

Interestingly, ancient medicinal texts tend to make a clear distinction between dry, old cheeses, and young, fresh cheeses. While old cheeses “lodge in the body,” fresh cheeses were thought to pass through much more easily and therefore be easier to digest. This would seem to indicate that fresh cheese is the smarter choice for a sound body—except for the fact that you might DIE from it. Emperor Antoninus Prius was a cautionary tale: it is alleged that overeating Alpine cheese caused his death three days later.

In Anthimus’s On the Observance of Foods, cheese is also identified as the culprit responsible for a number of fairly serious sounding ailments like “hepatics and kidney problems and splenetics, because it congeals in the kidneys and stones develop.” Eww!

These 14th-century guys are eating cheese no problem!

These 14th-century guys are eating cheese no problem!

Opinions about cheese hadn’t advanced much by the 17th century, if Thomas Muffet’s Health’s Improvement is any indication. According to the English naturalist and physician,

“Old and dry cheese hurteth dangerously: for it stayeth siege [causes constipation], stoppeth the liver, engendereth choler, melancholy, and the stone, lieth long in the stomack undigested, procureth thirst, maketh stinking breath and a scurvy skin.”

So yeah, I guess it is safe to say that Muffet isn’t down with cheeese.

Flash forward to the 21st century, and while our understanding of illness, science, and anatomy are way more sophisticated and nuanced, cheese is still getting a raw deal. Enter The Paleo Diet.

Also known as the Caveman Diet, for those of us not indoctrinated by CrossFit or hip to the dictates of diet fads, Paleo is premised on solely eating foods that were in existence during the Paleolithic era in order to mimic the diet of hunter gatherers. Gastroenterologist Walter Voeglin developed a forerunner of the diet during the 1970s, but it enjoyed a renaissance in 2002 when Loren Lordain published The Paleo Diet. It is now the official diet of the aforementioned CrossFit program.

So what exactly should you (or shouldn’t you) eat if you adhere to the diet? It’s a high protein, high fiber, low carb diet. Grass-fed meats, fish, seafood, fruit, vegetables, eggs, nut seeds, and healthy oils are in. Those sound pretty good. BUT cereal grains, legumes, refined sugar, potatoes, processed foods, and all dairy are OUT. (Boo on the latter for sure!)

Yes, leading the Paleo life means living your life without Époisses, Camembert, and all those other incredible cheeses that have been your companions during some of life’s most memorable moments. That’s in part because the only milk that Paleolithic-era humans consumed was human milk from their mothers. Cows, goats, and sheep would not be domesticated until the Neolithic Era (5,500 to 10,000 years ago), so cheese and yogurt aren’t part of the paleo picture.

But beyond this temporal justification for disparaging dairy, Paleo peeps attribute an impossibly long list of bodily ills to milk and dairy consumption, including increased incidents of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Parkinson’s, and autoimmune diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s. What is more, according to the Paleo-powers-that-be, hard cheeses allegedly unbalance acidic and basic substances in the body. Think of one of those pH strips you used in science class. Remember that neutral pH is 7, and that it is neither blue, nor red, but right in the middle. According to Paleo dictates, bone health depends on a balanced body pH, because too much acid in the diet will strip the bones of calcium. Because cheese is allegedly one of the highest acid-producing foods, it is thought to be responsible for bone de-mineralization. Finally, Paleo proponents are also quick to point out that there hasn’t been enough time for humans to adapt evolutionarily to a diet with so much dairy, citing the high incidence of lactose intolerance in world populations.

Besides shuddering at the thought of life without yogurt, cheese, and ice cream, the scientific and evolutionary bases for these contentions are (more than) a bit shaky, and the larger premise of the Paleo Diet has been publicly taken to task by experts such as University of Zurich archaelogical scientist Christina Warriner, who gave this interesting TEDx talk on the subject:

The very foundation of the diet itself is questionable, since it’s near-impossible to pin down a “single” Paleo diet to emulate—multiple Paleolithic diets varied by geography and population. Another huge fault with the diet’s mythology is the idea that evolution is necessarily a slow process. Adaptation can happen quite quickly via epigenetics: in order to respond to enviornmental stimuli (including those of a dietary nature) the body is able to turn specific genes “on” or “off” and thereby express different traits. When Neolithic people in Northern Europe were able to domesticate dairy animals, this mechanism allowed the gene for lactase (the enzyme that digests lactose) to remain turned on beyond childhood. As a result, in a span of less than 8,000 years (a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms), lactose tolerance is as high as 80% in Northern Europe.

What about those cardiovacular and diabetes claims? There is evidence that points to the opposite conclusion, linking dairy consumption to “an overall survival advantage.” And those claims about bone health are also contrary to popular medical wisdom that holds that hard cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano and other dairy products are key to good bone health and osteoporosis prevention.

So what’s the takeaway here? If I were you, I wouldn’t relinquish that cheese just yet!

Next week in Forbidden Fromage, it’s all about explicit, illicit dairy, as we take a look at how hip hop lyricists treat cheese.

Feature Photo Credit: Modified, Food infographic: pyramid of the paleolithic (caveman) diet by Irina Mir | Shutterstock

Johnisha Levi

Johnisha Levi is a Boston-area pastry cook and one of those very rare (think Pegasus) D.C. natives. If ithere's a documentary on food or true crime, chances are that she's seen it (or it's waiting in her Netflix queue). She's a culinary history nerd who is eager to spend her summer at culture learning more about cheese.

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