"Grass-Fed" - What Does It Mean for Cheese?

Posted by Emilia D'Albero on

Recently, you may have noticed the term "grass-fed" popping up on the packaging for cheeses, fresh meat, and even milk. It has become a powerful marketing term, albeit one that consumers may not have a complete understanding of. When it comes to cheese, there are a few important things you should know in terms of its significance and effect on a product's quality and flavor. 

The first thing to remember is that "grass-fed" is not immediately an indicator of quality. Remember, animals that are pastured (have access to fresh grass) likely will not have access year-round! For example, the hardworking girls at Shelburne Farms have "direct access to the salad" (as our tour guide put it) during the months when it is not covered in that heavy Vermont snow. During the winter, the animals may switch to a diet of dried hay, which was harvesting during the sunny months to ensure that the cows will have a nutritious diet during the winter. Eating hay and/or silage will impact their milk composition (winter milk is generally higher in fat!), but does not necessarily mean the resulting cheese is of a lower quality. 

That being said, grass-fed dairy products are naturally higher in beneficial fatty acids and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) that are linked to heart and brain health, as well as fat loss and prevention of cancer and other diseases. 

So what impact does a diet of fresh grass have on a cheese? Grass contains betacarotene, which is the compound responsible for vegetables like carrots being orange. Betacarotene is fat soluble, meaning the pigment is passed through to the milk, and can give the resulting cheese a deep, rich yellow color. The more grass the cow eats, the more intense the color. You can learn more about the science of cheese color by reading this post from Cheese Science Toolkit, one of our favorite cheese education resources. 

It's important to note that while this may be true for cows, goats do not metabolize betacarotene the same way - their bodies break it down into Vitamin A instead, which is why goat's milk cheeses are generally paler or even stark white. 

Flavor-wise, the difference is notable. A diet of fresh grasses, herbs, flowers, and other forage means that the milk will have more complexity of flavor, as the flavors of whatever the animal is eating will come through in the cheese. This is called the terroir of the milk, or, the way the animal's environment affects the final flavor of the product. This concept is especially prominent when we discuss alpage cheeses, or cheeses made exclusively with high-altitude summer milk in the Alps. These cheeses are prized for their nuanced flavor and golden color - truly a taste of the mountain terroir!

This means that the same cheese can look and taste very different at different times during the year, which is one of the benefits of small-batch high-quality artisan cheese. Your cheesemonger should be able to identify these changes that will vary from batch to batch, and will be able to direct you towards a cheese that will satisfy your needs! 

Cheese is a living product that needs to be cared for properly to honor the work of the makers - just as milk composition changes seasonally, cheesemakers adjust the cheesemaking process to accommodate the seasonal fluctuations, and affineurs must anticipate nuances in the aging process to make sure the cheese is ripening under the right conditions. It's very detailed work, and caring for cheese is no different! Formaticum offers a variety of bulk wrapping materials to suit every cheese style - from plant-based Cellophane for geotrichum-rinded cheeses to One-Ply Rolls for versatility to Super Wax sheets for blue cheeses, we have everything you need to keep your cheeses in peak condition for your customers. 

Interested in opening a wholesale account with us or inquiring about custom-branded cheese paper? Email wholesale@formaticum.com for more information, and don't forget to follow us on Instagram for more cheese education content. 

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