When Cheez Whiz first appeared on grocery store shelves in the early 1950s, it was praised for its long shelf life, convenience and versatility. But over the years, the very characteristics that once made the Kraft cheese product popular have given it a reputation as a premiere American junk food.
But now, a small community of fitness influencers is trying to redeem Cheez Whiz, touting it for containing high levels of a certain fatty acid that can potentially aid weight loss and fitness, and maybe even fight cancer.
This ingredient is called CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, which naturally occurs in meat and dairy products and has been shown to help burn fat and build muscle. Cheez Whiz’s high levels of CLA have earned the product a spot on lists of “healthy junk foods.” Even The Washington Post called CLA a “food for fending off cancer” back in 1989. But is it actually good for us?
What is CLA, anyway?
CLA is an important nutrient that most people consume in regular diets of meat and diary. Research is still ongoing to identify its true benefits, but CLA weight-loss supplements have become more popular as word has gotten out that it can help people meet fitness goals.
Cheez Whiz contains 5 milligrams of CLA per gram of fat. Comparatively, homogenized milk has 5.5 milligrams of CLA, beef has 3 to 4 milligrams, chicken 0.9 milligrams, seafood less than 1 milligram and cheeses range from 3.5 to 6 milligrams.
So, um, should we all be eating more Cheez Whiz?
Sadly, the answer is no.
A spokesperson for Kraft Heinz, owner of Cheez Whiz, declined to comment on the product’s CLA levels. But health experts say just because the product is high in CLA doesn’t mean Cheez Whiz should be considered healthy.
“I will never promote the intake of Cheez Whiz,” said Dusty Marie Narducci, assistant professor at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine who also is a family medicine and primary care sports medicine clinician and USF athletic team physician. “The other ingredients of Cheez Whiz will most likely counteract any health benefits potentially associated with the high level of CLA.”
OK, so no Cheez Whiz. Then what’s the healthiest way to consume CLA?
The best food sources of CLA are beef and full-fat dairy, where it is found naturally, Narducci said. Smaller concentrations are in most meat, fish and other dairy, and CLA can be produced synthetically from linoleic acid-rich oils, like safflower, sunflower, corn and soybean oils, a likely source of the CLA in Cheez Whiz.
There are some negative side effects from overdoing it on CLA.
Too much CLA could cause fatigue and gastrointestinal issues. People with diabetes or heart disease, or people on blood-thinning medication, should not take CLA supplements, Narducci said.
It may also fight cancer, but take that with a grain of salt.
Along with its weight-loss and fitness potential, researchers are also looking into CLA’s effectiveness in fighting cancer. Studies show it can reduce tumor proliferation in certain cancer cells and may lower the risk of breast cancer and other cancers.
However, these studies have focused on animals, not humans.
“It has been hypothesized that CLA changes fatty acid metabolism, which in turn may influence the behavior of cancer cells,” said Gary E. Deng, medical director of the Integrative Medicine Services at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
“At this point, it is just a hypothesis based on laboratory studies without support from any controlled human studies,” Deng said. “Numerous substances have been shown to be active in laboratory studies but not active when ingested by humans.”