Americans love cheese. While U.S. dairy milk consumption has fallen, cheese consumption keeps on increasing year over year. According to an Agriculture Department report from 2018, per capita cheese consumption increased to a record 37.23 pounds. If you’re a die-hard cheese fan, you’re probably consuming your mozzarella and ricotta (Italian cheese are now the most popular in the United States) with a side of guilt. After all, cheese has long gotten a bad rap because of its high saturated fat content, which is considered bad for heart health.
Research is starting to suggest, however, that the issue may be more complex. One study published in 2018 showed dairy fats such as cheese had a neutral-to-positive effect on the heart.
According to Jennifer Glockner, a registered dietitian, recent studies have indicated “that cheese may actually offer protective properties on the heart,” though she also noted that they were observational and did not prove cause and effect. Cheese does provide some beneficial nutrients, she said, “including protein; calcium for bone and teeth health; zinc, which promotes wound-healing and immunity; vitamin A for eye and skin health, and B12.”
Ranking by Healthfulness
If you’re looking for the leanest option, your best bet is fresh cheese. Such unripened cheeses include goat cheese, feta, ricotta and cottage cheese. “These cheeses are produced by the coagulation of milk and cream by chemical or culture acidification, or a combination of chemical acidification and high heat treatment,” says Nicole Magryta, a registered dietitian. “They also tend to be lowest in fats and cholesterol.”
A serving of cottage cheese or ricotta will pack a healthy dose of protein and half a cup of cottage cheese is roughly 110 calories. Ricotta is higher in calories — about 180 calories for half a cup — but is loaded with calcium. “While high in sodium, feta tends to be one of the lowest in calories. Plus, with its strong flavor, you often use less of it than other cheeses,” says Kelli McGrane, a registered dietitian. “Goat cheese is milder in flavor than feta, but also tends to be lower in calories as well as fat.”
Fresh mozzarella “tends to be one of the lowest in calories and sodium,” McGrane says. “Additionally, fresh mozzarella contains Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus fermentum, two probiotic strains that are beneficial for gut health.”
These hard, fermented cheeses have been aged longer than soft cheese, lending a richer flavor and increasing shelf life. They include varieties such as cheddar, Swiss and Parmesan and tend to be good sources of important vitamins and minerals such as calcium and vitamin A. They also have a modest amount of fat, according to Glockner. That said, though there’s less fat than there is in soft cheese, there’s more sodium.
Bloomy, mold-ripened varieties of cheese tend to have a firm rind and creamy interior, as they ripen from the outside in. Although extremely tasty on that cheese plate, soft cheeses such as Camembert, and brie fall into the “less healthy” category because of their saturated fat content.
In the camp of cheeses better avoided completely, you can toss out the processed types, such as American cheese singles. “These products shouldn’t even be considered real cheese, as they have been manipulated and engineered and pumped with preservatives,” Magryta says.
Magryta suggests keeping portion sizes small. “Most cheeses are between 60 and 90 percent fat and have between 75 and 120 calories per ounce,” she says. “Aim to keep your serving size of cheese to 1.5 ounces or less of hard cheeses — that’s about the size of four dice or a third of a cup shredded — or a half-cup portion size of cheeses like ricotta or cottage cheese.”
Also, stick to just one serving a day — and savor it. “Remember, cheese is not a (primary) source of protein, it is more so a source of fat and sodium,” Amy Shapiro, a registered dietitian and founder of Real Nutrition NYC.
Expert opinions differ on whether turning to low-fat cheese is a smart strategy. Though some dietitians continue to recommend low-fat or part-skim options, recent research suggests that this, too, might be a more complex issue. A 2016 study in Circulation linked the real deal to a lower risk of diabetes, and another study published the same year linked full-fat cheese consumption with a lower risk of obesity among women.
Magryta recommends choosing full-fat or whole-milk cheese. “When the fat is processed out of dairy foods, you lose not only the flavor but the food’s natural ability to keep you full,” she says. “Whole-fat cheese also helps to balance blood sugars, which may have to do with its high amounts of vitamin K, vitamin D and calcium.” Furthermore, low-fat cheese can be “a highly processed food.” Look at the ingredients. Unhealthy additions include acids, emulsifiers, thickeners, stabilizers, gums and other nondairy ingredients to make up for the lost fat. You should be wary if the ingredient list on the cheese feels long.
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