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The case of the incredible shrinking Swiss cheese holes

A Swiss agriculture lab finds that the modern process of cheese making is making Swiss cheese look less Swiss cheesy.

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If you've ever had questions about the holes in Swiss cheese, some scientists have an answer for you and thankfully, it has nothing to do with mice.National Cancer Institute/Renee Comet/Wikimedia

Remember in those old "Tom and Jerry" cartoons when Jerry the mouse would try to sneak a block of Swiss cheese past Tom and when the cat spotted him, Jerry would hide in one of its holes? Well, apparently, with the way Swiss cheese holes have been shrinking, nowadays Tom would gobble up poor Jerry and send any sympathetic kids watching into therapy for life.

Yes, a Swiss agricultural research group, Agroscope, says the iconic holes in Swiss cheese are getting fewer and smaller thanks to the modernization of the cheese-making process.

The group published a study in the online edition of the International Dairy Journal with conclusions about why there've been fewer holes in the last 15 years and how to change that.

The standing explanation on the holes in Swiss cheese is that they're formed by carbon dioxide gas created by the bacteria used to give the cheese its flavor. However, these researchers say that the holes can be encouraged to form by the presence of plant microparticles -- tiny bits of hay.

The study looked at eight blocks of Emmental cheese that were made with "microfiltrated milk" and involved adding powdered hay, according to the study's abstract. The group examined the cheeses as they ripened for 130 days and ran X-rays on the blocks, which may just be the strangest use of an X-ray machine ever unless there's a doctor out there who once used an MRI on the family dog in a desperate attempt to find his car keys. The X-rays showed that the powdered hay bits became the "eye nuclei" for holes, according to the abstract. By adding more hay powder, the group said, they could create cheese with more holes.

Régis Nyffeler, a spokesperson for Agroscope, said in a statement that this means that there are fewer, smaller holes in today's cheese because of the modernization of the cheese-making process. These days, milking is done with machines that keep out more foreign particles than the traditional squirt-into-a-bucket strategy did.

So this could be a major discovery for the cheese world. Maybe in the future we'll be paying extra for cheese with extra hay, and Swiss mice can breathe a sigh of relief.

(Via The Guardian)