NORTH HAMPTON, N.H. — Roxanne Barnes couldn’t believe her bad luck.

Here she was, on a promising second date over dinner at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, and it was with another man who likes cheese. The last guy she dated was also a cheese-head – not a great match, considering she hated the stuff and wouldn’t know a gouda from a gruyere.

“The first two hours, all he did was talk about cheese,” Barnes said, recalling the first time she met Dr. Mark R. Windt. “I was like, ‘What’s the deal with guys and cheese around here?’ ” Barnes said with a laugh.

The couple is now engaged, but professionally they already have a perfect marriage. They’ve blended her business experience with his medical expertise to form a company that is launching a new product – a cheddar cheese that’s made with pasteurized milk but contains active probiotic cultures similar to those found in yogurt. Normally these cultures cannot survive the heat of pasteurization.

When Dr. Mark Windt met Roxanne Barnes, he took her to a cheese convention. She expected to be bored, but found herself swooning over flavored goat cheeses and looking forward to lectures on topics like “monastic cheeses.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

When Dr. Mark Windt met Roxanne Barnes, he took her to a cheese convention. She expected to be bored, but found herself swooning over flavored goat cheeses and looking forward to lectures on topics like “monastic cheeses.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I took pasteurized milk and introduced the probiotics back into it,” Windt said.

The Probiotic Cheese Company is based in North Hampton, New Hampshire, where Windt has a medical practice, but its Probiotic Cheddar Cheese Bites are made by the Vermont Farmstead Cheese Co. in Woodstock, Vermont.

The cheese bites – they are actually cheddar curds – come in regular and “savory pepper” and are now in Whole Foods stores throughout the Northeast, including the Portland store. A 5-ounce bag sells for $5.99. The Portland store sold out of the cheese during an initial sampling, and a spokesperson says it’s been “very popular” ever since.

Probiotics are “friendly” bacteria that live in the gut. Many people believe they to have certain health benefits, such as promoting a healthy digestive tract and immune system. But most of the claims are still unproven.

Windt, whose specialties are pulmonary medicine and asthma, allergy and immunology, is a believer. He keeps his eye on the latest studies and talks with researchers at meetings where probiotics papers are being presented.

He knows a lot of work remains to be done to prove the efficacy of probiotics, but he does not doubt they show great promise.

“This is a new field that is just exploding with literature,” he said in an interview during a break from seeing patients in his North Hampton medical office. “Honestly, every month there’s new information that we’re learning about the microbiome and probiotics’ benefits and effects.”

The Probiotic Cheese Company’s cheddar and spicy cheeses. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

The Probiotic Cheese Company’s cheddar and spicy cheeses. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

His interest is also personal. He has suffered from ulcerative colitis and is a colon cancer survivor.

His mother died after being infected by a nasty intestinal pathogen common in hospitals and nursing homes that scientists have tried fighting with probiotics. “My mother died from someone not washing their hands, at age 89,” he said. “By the time that it was discovered, it was too late for antibiotics to do anything.”

Windt’s interest in cheese came from his father, who always topped a slice of apple pie with a good piece of cheddar and encouraged his son to try different kinds of cheese. (Windt’s favorites: French comte and Rogue River Blue from Oregon). He joined the American Cheese Society years ago, when its members numbered in the hundreds instead of thousands.

When Windt met Barnes, he won her over to cheese by taking her to the 2011 American Cheese Society convention in Montreal, where she expected to be bored out of her mind but instead found herself swooning over flavored goat cheeses and even looking forward to lectures on topics like “monastic cheeses.”

In 2012, the couple went to the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival in Shelburne, where conversations with cheesemakers got them interested in the potential of probiotic cheese.

Others have come before them. Kraft Foods introduced a pasturized probiotic cheese called LiveActive in the early 2000s but pulled it from the shelf by 2008 because consumers weren’t interested. Other cheese companies have tried, with similar results.

Dean Sommer, a cheese and food technologist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research in Madison, said he hasn’t seen any probiotic cheeses on store shelves in a long time.

From a technical standpoint, cheese is actually a “better delivery vehicle” for probiotics than yogurt, he said.

The Probiotic Cheese Company’s products are for sale at Whole Foods in Portland. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

The Probiotic Cheese Company’s products are for sale at Whole Foods in Portland. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

“Yogurt is really acidic, so the die-off of these probiotics can be faster in yogurt,” Sommer said. “They’re a little happier living in cheese than they are in yogurt.”

The flip side is that cheddar cheeses have a shelf life of five to six months, far longer than yogurt. So probiotics have to survive a lot longer in cheese, Sommer said, because “you want the right numbers of probiotics at the point of consumption.”

Another obstacle is consumer perception.

“What we have seen and heard anecdotally is that consumers just don’t associate probiotics with cheese like they do with yogurts,” Sommer said.

But consumer attitudes are changing, and the technology has advanced since Kraft pulled its cheese from the shelves nearly a decade ago, said Rick Woods, vice president of creamery operations at Vermont Farmstead Cheese Co., where Probiotic Cheddar Cheese Bites are made.

“The technology on probiotics has come leaps and bounds, and honestly, the consumer is looking for stuff like this,” Woods said. “Activia has done all our marketing for us. Everyone knows when you hear the word Activia, that’s probiotic yogurt, and probiotics are good for you.”

Windt, ever the doctor, has big dreams. He wants the cheese – full of protein and without all the sugar found in commercial flavored yogurt – to land in kids’ school lunch boxes and feed cancer patients, people in Third World countries and others who need better nutrition.

“Cheese is really almost the perfect food,” he said.

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