Cheese is a good source of calcium and protein, but it can also be high in saturated fats and sodium. Should we be eating more cheese or less?
Cheese has grown in popularity in the United States (U.S.) in the last 50 years. Statistics show that consumption tripled from 1970 to 2009.
The range of cheeses available and the number of specialist cheese makers in the U.S. has also grown in recent years.
Some people avoid dairy cheese due to a milk allergy or lactose intolerance, because they are on a weight-loss diet, or as part of a vegan diet.
Cheese offers a number of health benefits, some of which are surprising. Whether or not it is a healthful choice depends on the individual and the type and amount of cheese consumed.
Fast facts on cheese:
- There are thousands of types of cheese. “Cheese-flavored” food is not considered one of them.
- Many cheeses are high in sodium and fat, but the benefits may outweigh the disadvantages.
- Natural, low-fat, low-sodium cheese can make a healthful addition to most diets.
- Anyone with a lactose allergy should not eat any type of cheese, but some types may be suitable for those with a lactose intolerance.
Cheese is a standard accompaniment to popular foods like burgers, pizza, Mexican dishes, salad, and sandwiches.
Alone, it can be a snack or an appetizer. It can be added to sauces, soups, pastries, and many other dishes.
There are thousands of varieties of cheese, ranging from mild to mature in flavor, and low- to high-fat in composition. It can be made from the milk of cows, sheep, goats, and other animals.
Whole-milk cheese contains between 6 and 10 grams (g) of fat per 1-ounce (28 g), serving. Of this, 4 g to 6 g is saturated fat.
Low-fat or reduced-fat cheese is made with 2 percent milk. Non-fat cheese is made with 0 percent or skim milk.
Fresh cheeses are cheeses that have not been aged, or matured. They usually have a higher moisture content, softer texture, and milder taste than aged cheeses. Examples incude ricotta, cream cheese, cottage cheese, and mascarpone.
Aged or mature cheeses are firmer in texture and tend to be aged for 6 months or longer. The longer the aging process, the more concentrated or sharp the flavor. Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, and Gruyère are examples of aged cheeses.
Processed cheese, such as cheese spread, American cheese, “cheese food” and “cheese flavored” products cannot be categorized as cheese, and the label must reflect this. These are shelf-stable products containing added ingredients such as flavor enhancers and emulsifiers.
Non-dairy cheeses, such as soy cheese and daiya, are suitable for people who do not consume dairy products, but they are highly processed.
Men and women aged from 19 to 50 years should consume 1,000 mg of calcium a day. One ounce of cheddar cheese provides 20 percent of this daily requirement.
However, cheese can also be high in calories, sodium, and saturated fat. The breakdown of macronutrients in any cheese can vary widely, depending on the type.
One ounce (28 g) one brand of cheddar cream cheese spread contains:
- 80 calories
- 7 g of fat, including 5 g of saturated fatty acids
- 1 g of carbohydrate
- 0 g of protein
- 150 milligrams (mg) of calcium
- 750 international units (IU) of vitamin A
- 15 mg of cholesterol
- 380 mg of sodium
One ounce (28 g) of one brand of cheddar cheese contains:
- 120 calories
- 10 g of fat, including 6 g of saturated fatty acids
- 0 g of carbohydrate
- 7 g of protein
- 200 mg of calcium
- 400 international units (IU) of vitamin A
- 30 mg of cholesterol
- 190 mg of sodium
Cheese-flavored products do not have the same nutritional value and are more likely to be high in sodium.
Dairy products are one of the best dietary sources of calcium and other nutrients. Here are eight ways in which cheese might be healthful.
1. Bone health
Some theories have proposed that eating dairy products leads to higher acid levels in the body, and that this can destroy rather than encourage healthy bones. However, scientific evidence does not support this view.
2. Dental health
Cheese can enhance dental health. Calcium plays an important role in tooth formation, and cheese is a good source of calcium. In addition, at least one study has shown that eating cheese can raise the pH level in dental plaque, offering protection against dental cavities.
Milk and sugar-free yogurt appear not to have the same effect.
3. Blood pressure
Statistics show that people who eat more cheese have lower blood pressure, despite some cheeses being rich in fat and sodium.
Calcium can help reduce blood pressure. Low-fat, low-sodium cheeses are recommended.
A suitable low-sodium cheese would be low-fat or reduced-fat natural Swiss cheese.
Other low-fat cheeses include cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, parmesan, feta, and goat’s cheese, and low-fat cream cheese.
Many cheeses are now available in “lite” versions, such as cheddar, brie, havarti, and feta. Check the nutritional information, because some reduced-fat cheeses have added sodium.
Due to extreme processing, fat-free cheeses are not recommended as a regular part of the diet, even for those looking to reduce calories or fat.
4. Healthy blood vessels
Some cheeses contain high levels of cholesterol and sodium, suggesting that they can lead to cardiovascular problems.
However, in 2014, researchers concluded that dairy products could be a good source of the antioxidant, glutathione. This antioxidant is crucial for brain health and for preventing age-related neurodegeneration.
In 2016, scientists also found that the antioxidant properties of cheese may protect against the negative effects of sodium, at least, in the short term.
In the study, the blood vessels of participants who consumed dairy cheese functioned better than the blood vessels of those who ate pretzels or soy cheese.
5. Gut microbiota and cholesterol
As a fermented food, cheese may help boost healthy gut bacteria. This could have a positive effect on blood cholesterol levels, according to a small study published in 2015.
6. A healthy weight
Studies show that a person with a high body mass index (BMI) is more likely to have low levels of calcium. Since cheese is a good source of calcium, there may be benefits for people on a weight-loss diet.
7. Omega-3 fatty acids
These have been found in some types of cheese, and especially those made from milk produced by cows that eat Alpine grasses. Omega-3 fatty acids are believed to benefit the cardiovascular system and the brain.
8. Healthy cells
Cells need protein for building and repair. One ounce of cheddar cheese can offer 7 g of protein. The amount of protein recommended for each person depends on their age, size, and activity level. Use this calculator to find out how much protein you need.
Saturated fat: The 2015 Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) recommend limiting fat intake to 20 to 35 percent of daily calories, and saturated fat to less than 10 percent of total calories. This means that someone following an 1800-calorie diet should consume less than 18 grams per day of saturated fat.
One ounce of cheddar cheese contains around 120 calories and 6 g of saturated fat.
Some studies suggest, however, that saturated fat from dairy foods may be less harmful than saturated fat from other sources.
Sodium: Along with fat, sodium can be high in some cheeses, especially processed cheeses and “cheese flavored” products.
Hormones: Concerns have been raised about the presence of estrogen and other steroid hormones in dairy produce. These could disrupt the endocrine system and potentially increase the risk of some types of cancer.
Allergies, intolerances, sensitivity, and interactions
Lactose intolerance: A person with a lactose intolerance lacks the enzyme needed to break down and digest the sugar found in milk. Consuming milk and dairy products may result in bloating, flatulence, or diarrhea.
Tolerance levels depend on the individual. One person may be able to tolerate aged dairy with low levels of lactose, such as yogurt and hard cheeses, while others experience a reaction to even a small amount of dairy produce.
Soft, fresh cheeses, such as mozzarella, may trigger a reaction in a person with a lactose intolerance. However, harder cheeses, such as cheddar and parmesan, have lower levels of lactose. People with a lactose intolerance may find that a small amount of these cheeses can be safely consumed.
An allergy occurs because of an abnormal immunologic reaction to certain triggers, such as milk protein, whether casein or whey. The body’s immune system produces an allergic antibody, immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibody, when exposed to the trigger.
Allergy symptoms include post-nasal drip, wheezing, diarrhea, and vomiting. In more severe cases, a person may develop asthma, eczema, bleeding, pneumonia, and anaphylaxis, or shock. This can be serious, and even life-threatening.
Anyone with a milk allergy must avoid all dairy products, including cheese.
Anyone experiencing this type of symptom can ask a dietitian to guide them through an elimination diet or conduct a food sensitivity test, to find out whether a dairy-free diet may help.
Phosphorus is present in high quantities in some cheeses. This may be harmful to those with a kidney disorder. If the kidneys cannot remove excess phosphorus from the blood, this can be fatal.
A high calcium intake has been linked to an increased risk of prostate cancer in some studies, but other investigations have found no associations between the two.
Constipation is frequently seen in young children who consume a lot of dairy products while eating a low-fiber, processed diet.
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are drugs used to treat depression and Parkinson’s disease. People using these drugs may need to avoid foods with high levels of the amino acid tyramine, found naturally in aged cheeses, cured meats, pickled foods, beer, and wine. The longer the food is aged, the higher the tyramine content.
Migraines and headaches have also been associated with tyramine-containing foods. A food diary may help identify if tyramine-containing foods are triggering symptoms.
Cheese can offer may health benefits, but those at risk of cardiovascular disease or weight gain should choose low-sodium, low-fat cheeses.
Processed cheeses and “cheese foods” are most likely to contain additional fat and salt, so choose natural but low-fat dairy products.
On the bright side, even high-fat cheeses, such as a blue cheese, can be used for adding flavor. Crumbling a little into a sauce or over a salad provides taste without too many calories.
Buying cheese made from organic milk may help reduce exposure to antibiotic and growth hormone-laden milk.
Cheese can be a valuable source of calcium for those without an intolerance or allergy, but it should be chosen with care and consumed moderately.
A registered dietitian can advise you on whether to consume milk or dairy products, and, if so, which ones.