Cheese has been a staple food from the times of antiquity (“הלא כחלב תתיכני וכגבינה תקפאני” איוב י’, י’ ), and was the M.R.E. for the army of Shaul HaMelech [M.R.E. stands for Meals-Ready-to-Eat, formerly known as “C-Ration”] (ואת עשרת חריצי החלב” ומתרגמינן “גובין דחלבא” שמואל א’ י“ז, י“ח) Before the advent of refrigeration, cheese-making was the only means of preserving milk. Given its importance, Chazal created the gezira of gevinas akum due to concerns of חתנות and כשרות [wine & cheese parties] (see Aruch HaShulchan 112:1). While cheese is quite ancient, foods do not remain the same and new types of cheese have been developed to meet changing consumer preferences. Although some of them are certified kosher, others have recently lost their hashgacha. The purpose of this article is to clarify their halachic status and the kosher issues relating to them.
Cheese made from fresh milk contains significant amounts of butterfat. With the demand for “fat free” and “cholesterol free” foods, the food industry has developed new types of products which are designed to have the flavor and functionality of natural cheese-but without the (butter)fat. These products fall into two categories-reduced fat cheese and imitation cheese (also known as cheese analogs). Reducing the amount of butterfat in cheese is not difficult-one simply uses low fat or skim milk. The problem is that much of the flavor and consistency of cheese is directly affected by the amount of fat in the curd. The taste and texture of the base cheese used to make fat free cheese product have been likened to that of a pencil eraser! Clearly, a fat free cheese that tastes like it came from a Goodyear plant will not be a commercial success. However, companies have now perfected recipes where the fat free cheese is melted with texture enhancers and flavors to make a cheese food similar to American cheese with acceptable palatability. Since these products start with true cheese, they must be produced with a Mashgiach like any other gevinas yisroel.
Imitation cheese takes a different approach in its manufacture. Cheese is primarily a coagulum of casein protein and fat, with additional flavor contributed by the culture. Cheese analogs, on the other hand are produced by combining these components from independent sources. Rennet casein serves as the source of casein, vegetable fat is used to replace butterfat, and commercial flavorings contribute the taste. Such products have two advantages over conventional cheese-casein contains no lactose and vegetable fat contains no cholesterol. As such, these products are “Lactose and Cholesterol Free”, although they do contain vegetable fat. As discussed in a previous article (What is it, Any-Whey?, Daf Hashana 1, pg. 20), rennet casein is considered a true cheese and is subject to the rules of gevinas akum. Kosher cheese analog must therefore use specially supervised rennet casein. Rennet casein which is gevinas yisroel is difficult to obtain, and the lack of availability of kosher rennet casein has caused some kosher imitation cheese products to be discontinued. One should constantly check that a favorite imitation product remains reliably certified.