Updated: May 9, 2019
By Emily Press
When I think about cheese, I picture a wheel of brie, slices of cratered swiss, and the Kraft mac from my childhood. For most of us, at least us Americans, cheese is just a food. But spend your career researching cheese, like professor Paul Kindstedt, and you’ll find it connects you to so much more: the chemistry of microbes, the history of human civilizations, even the origins of life itself.
Paul Kindstedt (known fondly as the “cheese guy”) has been a faculty member at the University of Vermont since 1986. He graduated from UVM with a B.S. in Dairy Technology, and a M.S. in Animal Sciences, and went on to earn his PhD at Cornell in Food Technology.
Currently, Kindstedt teaches two classes at UVM; each with its own matching publication — Principles of Cheesemaking and Cheese and Culture. He is phasing out of research, on a high note I might add: his lab was just awarded the American Dairy Science Association’s International Dairy Foods Association Research Award in Dairy Foods Processing as well as the Mineralogical Society of Canada’s Hawley Award for the best paper in the Canadian Mineralogist.
Kindstedt is more than just a “cheese guy”; he’s a pioneer, nationally renowned for his work in the history of cheese and culture. He has appeared in podcasts by Gastropod, he has written content for TED Ed, his work has been covered by national newspapers and news networks alike. I was lucky enough to pick Kindstedt’s brain about his career and research. He talked to me about his more recent inquiries, i.e. the molecular physiology of calcium lactate crystals, and many others found in cheese, but the material I walked out of his office with had a scope way beyond the microscopic.
Kindstedt’s career at UVM kick-started with a radical replication experiment: making genuine brie camembert... in Vermont. With more than 70 artisanal cheesemakers in the state today, and hundreds of diverse cheeses produced, it’s hard to see why this kind of cheesemaking could have bred any controversy in the first place. That’s where the term terroir comes into play. Those of you with a background in wine might be familiar — it’s the same idea in wine as in cheese.
Terroir refers to the way an environment makes a cheese unique, and for some (namely Europeans) irreplicable. The European climate — both in terms of physical characteristics of the place, and social characteristics of the culture — has had an indelible, regional imprint on cheesemaking practices. American culture is too young to have had any sort of comparable effect on its own cheese products.
“Cheeses develop over long periods of time as this sort of iterative process between the cheesemakers and the physical and cultural environments. The place leaves this imprint on the cheese, as does the culture," Kindstedt told me. "And then there’s this element of identity of the people; cheese in particular becomes part of cultural identity. Our experience in the U.S. is so radically different with respect to food and cheese and many other things. We don’t have that depth of time and terroir really leaving an imprint on cheese.”
Because UVM is a Land-Grant public university, much of the research that happens on campus in the College fo Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) is applied: grants come from outside parties who stand to benefit. In the case of the Kindstedt lab, it’s the dairy industry that has shaped his inquiry over the years: “I work for, in a sense, cheesemakers and the cheese industry.”
Until 2000, Kindstedt’s mozzarella stakeholders had the most influence on his research questions. Apparently, mozzarella was Vermont’s number one cheese in annual production, until around 2000. (Amazing the way Vermont’s mozzarella roots have been so vastly overshadowed by the cheddar scene; I had no sense of a pre-cheddar era before this conversation)
After 2000, Kindstedt started to explore a burning question in the cheddar industry: how can we get rid of calcium lactate crystals? For large cheddar cheese companies, the power to stop these crystals from forming was big business.
The Larner College of Medicine has a Microscopy Imaging Center equipped with a confocal laser microscope, transmission and scanning electron microscopes, an atomic force microscope and light microscopes (to name a few). Kindstedt’s graduate students used the microscopy lab to characterize and quantify the calcium lactate crystals, and compiled some incredible images for analysis.
Around 2011 or 2012, the problem of calcium lactate crystal formation became a non-issue for the big players in the dairy industry. New techniques in cheese production could stop crystal formation, and the Kindstedt lab found itself at a crossroads.
Kindstedt was traveling in Italy, at a conference promoting a return to the traditional methods of cheesemaking, when it came to him: he would trace his previous research question backward. By 2012, the artisanal cheesemaking movement was growing large enough to support applied research. Interestingly enough, Kindstedt found, smaller-scale cheesemakers wanted to increase the amount of crystals in their cheeses.
What had been a blight on the cheddar of Kindstedt’s past became a new avenue for intense control over the mouth-feel of the artisanal cheese of the future. These days, farmstead cheese makers are using the science behind the formation of a wide range of different crystals as a seal of authenticity in their cheese.
“So much of cheese texture is directly related to structure and architecture: if you can prep the sample without creating artifacts, it is so powerful to understand what it feels like in your mouth or how it melts.”
Kindstedt described this relationship between his research and the artisans as a sort of marriage of art and science. Looking at the cheese crystals under high power microscopy resources, Kindstedt and his graduate students are like Vermont’s own Snowflake Bentley, the first to capture snowflakes on camera. In the eyes of the public, there is beauty in the microscopic these days; just look at the rise of microbiology in fad dieting and kombucha, or the viral videos out of Harvard on time-lapsed cell growth.
Cheese, paired with science, has been a maverick in the foodie revolution: “I love cheese chemistry, and it gives me a hook to the public to talk about things I really love; science, cheese history…”
Kindstedt may be phasing out of the lab, but he sees some amazing avenues in research for the future generations to explore:
“On these cheese surfaces, these smear ripened cheeses vt is so famous for, the microbiota are catalyzing crystal formation in really unusual ways that’s called bio mineralization. The earliest forms of life we know 3.5 billion years ago about are geological deposits called stromatolites: results of biomineralization. Slime layers in ancient aquatic environments crystallize calcium carbonate around them. These striated structures in the geological record are key to understanding the origins of life itself. Biomineralization is a hard thing to study in nature, but it happens in cheeses all the time. Cheese can be a model for biomineralization in real time.“
Essentially, Kindstedt is proposing we test our theories on the earliest evidence of life in the geological record on the crystals that appear in artisanal cheeses: the same way we test out experimental drugs on model organisms, or cells in culture. Suddenly, we have this really accessible way of investigating complicated questions from the fast receding past, including the reconstruction of ancient climate history.
“Who would have ever known that these really rare crystals that are really of importance to paleo-climatology as proxies for reconstructing ancient climate change. They indicate aspects of the conditions and environment that occurred at that point 100,000 years ago or so. We have them forming completely unexpectedly on the surface of cheese, and we have a model to better understand the conditions that cause these really rare crystals to form. We can grow them on the surface of cheese and really understand the mechanism for a better interpretation of these proxies.”
I never would have thought that an interview about cheese would leave me thinking in so many directions. But I guess that’s life sometimes. You can do your best to pave your path straight ahead, but something’s bound to throw you off the course — for better or for worse.
That seemed to be a bit of a theme in our discussion — this idea of flexibility and redirection. Kindstedt found himself in the dairy field as a fall-back career, after his dream of being a doctor died (with Freshman Calculus II); his research on mozzarella came to a close as the industry moved out of state; his crystal research fluxed with the demands of the market; and finally, his research into the cultural and scientific origins of cheese, as it relates to human civilization, has brought him into conflict from time to time with his religious community.
Looking back at his path in academia, and his career as a researcher, Kindstedt had some valuable reflections for those of us following our own paths through university life and beyond: “Things have a way of working out. It’s so hard to know sometimes. It’s definitely scary the first time, when you’re a student. But you’ve got to start somewhere and then be willing to explore a little bit. Sometimes it takes some redirection, but that’s normal, that’s life.”
Kindstedt seems to practice what he preaches; his life’s work has been his life’s passion. If this interview just skimmed the surface of Kindstedt’s work and research, all I can say is I can’t wait to see what Cheese and Culture has in store next fall.