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Doing Dairy Right

Best picks when choosing cheese and cream products
Dairy fat--the kind that comes in butter, milk, and cheese‑-is saturated, plain and simple. So if you want to spare your arteries, you need to switch to (trans-free) margarine, fat-free or low-fat milk, or reduced-fat hard cheese.

But you've also got to watch the sour cream you spoon onto your baked potato, the ricotta you tuck into your lasagna, the cream cheese you use for your Sunday "schmear," and the cheese spreads that grace your crackers. Each can pack a wallop of heart trouble. Here's how to dodge it without disappointing your taste buds.

Sour Cream
Two tablespoons of full-fat sour cream deliver three grams of saturated fat. That's 15 percent of your daily limit of bad fat. But all the fat-frees we tasted were bland and not very creamy (Cabot Vermont and Daisy are the best of the bunch, though they taste more like plain yogurt).

Solution: try a reduced-fat (like Breakstone's) or a light (like Friendship, Land O Lakes, or Cabot Vermont). They cut the sat fat from three grams to two or 1 1/2 (in two tablespoons). But blindfolded, you could easily mistake them for full-fat.

If you can find Vermont Butter & Cheese Company Fromage Blanc, you're in business. The company has figured out how to turn fat-free milk into something that tastes exactly like rich, full-fat sour cream.

Cottage Cheese
A bowl of cottage cheese with sliced bananas, blueberries, or peaches is a classic. But half a cup of regular, full-fat cottage cheese (the label will say 4 percent milkfat) chews up three of your 20 grams of saturated fat for the entire day. Why bother when you can get away with half that much in an equally creamy 2 percent milkfat cottage cheese? Most companies make one.

Friendship, Light n' Lively, Borden, Knudsen, and others offer 1 percent milkfat cottage cheese. While not as creamy as 2 percent, they're a real bargain at no more than one gram of sat fat per half cup.

Fat-free cottage cheese? You're skating on thin ice. Some (Breakstone's Free Small Curd, for example) are bland, others taste too salty or sour. Some companies jazz up their 1 percent or fat-free cottage cheese by adding fruit‑-usually pineapple‑-plus sugar or artificial sweeteners.

And remember to check the sodium on your cottage cheese label. Most plain ones range from 400 to 500 mg in a half cup. While less is better, don't even think about "no salt added" brands. Even the salt shaker can't fix them.

Cream Cheese
Cream cheese is more cream than cheese. Two tablespoons coat your arteries with five or six grams of saturated fat (and only two grams of protein‑-much less than most cheeses).

Our advice: ratchet down the fat until your taste buds say "uncle." Neufchtel‑-a spreadable unripened white cheese‑-brings the sat fat to four grams, yet looks and tastes exactly like full-fat cream cheese. Whipped cream cheese slices off another half gram by replacing cream cheese with air. (If you like flavored cream cheese, try Philadelphia Whipped Cinnamon 'N Brown Sugar on cinnamon-raisin toast or Whipped Mixed Berry on a blueberry bagel.)

Most people will have no argument with light cream cheese (three grams of sat fat), especially if it's sitting under a layer of lox and freshly sliced red onion and tomato.

Fat-frees may disappoint some taste buds, though. Philadelphia's fat-free tub may taste richer than its fat-free brick, but it still registers as sour on some tongues. In fact, the Fat Free Strawberry tub works best probably because its sweetness masks its sourness.

Whipped Topping
There's nothing like a little whipped topping to lure nonfruit-lovers to a bowl of fresh berries. But odds are, "a little" is at least double the serving that appears on labels‑-two (level) tablespoons. While our chart uses a more-realistic four-tablespoon serving (a quarter-cup), stopping there is no piece of cake, either.

Luckily, you can now find fat-free Reddi Wip and Cool Whip. They're airy and surprisingly good. Just keep in mind that "fat-free" means less than half a gram of fat in two tablespoons. Keep eating and you'll move out of fat-free range.

That's a problem, especially with Cool Whip, since the brand is largely hydrogenated coconut and palm kernel oils (Reddi Wip is cream). Both oils are fully, not partially, hydrogenated, so they don't contain trans fat. But they're saturated, so you can't pile it on like there's no tomorrow.

Reddi Wip Light, with half a gram of sat fat, is also a Best Bite. It's denser and richer than the fat-frees and has that marvelous mouthfeel of ice-cream-parlor whipped cream. Of course, that just makes it harder to stop at four tablespoons.

They range from gourmet brands with French names (Alouette, Rondele) to office holiday party fare (Kaukauna, WisPride) to Super Bowl party staples (Price's). If you're not careful, a modest two-tablespoon serving of cheese spread can coat your crackers‑- not to mention your arteries‑-with five to eight grams of saturated fat. Fortunately, some brands have seen the "light."

Alouette, Boursin, Fleur de Lait, and Rondele each has a line of light spreads that cuts the sat fat to three grams or less. (Only Fleur de Lait is a good source of calcium.) We tried each brand's garlic and herb flavor. Our favorite: Boursin Light Garlic & Fine Herbs. The company infuses its first-rate cheese with a complex mix of garlic, parsley, and chives. But the others also have their charms. Rondele Lite Garlic & Herbs has a deep peppery cast, Alouette Light Garlic & Herbs delivers a delicate onion flavor, and Fleur de Lait Light Minced Garlic & Herbs is spiked with chunks of real garlic.

The Laughing Cow cheeses are a hot commodity. The individually wrapped Light Creamy, Original Creamy Swiss, and Light Gourmet Cheese Bites are portable process cheese. But their rich taste and tangy bite are a far cry from American cheese.

Kaukauna Lite and WisPride Lite‑-they're the same cheese spreads sold under different brand names‑-aren't quite as notable. The Lite Port Wine, for example, has zero wine taste (as does the non-lite version).

Some brands are low enough in saturated fat (three grams) to get a Best Bite, even though they're not light. Heluva Good spreads are far richer and creamier than the Kaukaunas and WisPrides. The Port Wine tastes like it contains something you had to remove a cork to get. The Sharp Cheddar has that bite that cheddar lovers crave. And the Cheddar & Horseradish has the intensity of freshly grated horseradish.

Rising Sun Farms' delicious Lite Pesto Dried Tomato Cheese Torta is also a real find. Each dip gets a slightly different mix of its three layers: pesto, dried tomato, and Neufchtel cheese.

Unripened Goat Cheese
"Chevre" means goat in French. But for many people, it means a rich, full-flavored cheese that you'd never expect to be lowish in fat. In fact, we found enough Best Bites to keep you in goat cheese for some time.

Soft goat cheeses are 60 percent water, which keeps the sat fat (and, unfortunately, the calcium) down. But the taste is anything but diluted. One nibble of just about any of our Best Bites‑-Chavrie or Vermont Butter & Cheese Company Creamy Goat Cheese, for example‑-and you'll swear they've got more than three grams of sat fat.

Creme fraiche (French for fresh cream) is a thickened cream that restaurants often spoon over soups or desserts. But just two tablespoons carry seven grams of saturated fat‑-a third of a day's worth. Mascarpone, an Italian double- or triplecream cheese that's often used to make tiramisu or served on top of fresh fruit, has eight grams of sat fat.

More familiar to most people is ricotta. It's the traditional cheese in lasagna, stuffed shells, and ravioli. Luckily, you can now find fat-free, low-fat, and light versions. All get Best Bites (no more than two grams of sat fat in a quarter cup). Part-skim, at three grams of sat fat, has only a third less sat fat than whole-milk ricotta.

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