Q: I love cheese. How can I continue to enjoy it as I strive to eat better? Are there cheeses that are healthier than others?
A: I’m a cheese lover, too. I eat a small amount nearly every day: feta or blue cheese to top a salad, Swiss cheese in an omelet, or a chunk of cheddar with an apple as an on-the-run snack. I must admit that my allotment crept higher recently when I had the irresistible opportunity to choose from an array of cheeses served at a breakfast buffet.
Where does the advice on cheese stand now that the nutrition guidance on fat is focused more on quality vs. quantity? Has cheese eased its way off the verboten list? Here’s the current science and nutrition advice.
Cheese Facts First
A thousand-plus varieties of cheese abound. Americans’ favorites are mozzarella, cheddar, processed American cheese, Colby, Monterey and Parmesan. All cheeses are a combination of four main ingredients: milk, salt, starter culture and rennet, an enzyme that helps turn the ingredient mix into a solid.
According to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, Americans ate 35 pounds of cheese per capita in 2015 (excluding cottage cheese), about an ounce and a half of cheese per day.
Most cheese in supermarkets and restaurants is full-fat (also called regular-fat) cheese, meaning it’s made with whole milk that contains 4 percent milk fat. While you’ll find reduced-fat or part-skim cheese, made with 2 percent milk, and fat-free cheese, made with nonfat milk, in supermarkets, these lower-fat options add up to less than 10 percent of the market, according to a National Dairy Council representative.
Nutrition Assets and Liabilities
In the assets column, cheese is a good source of protein and contains important nutrients, including calcium and potassium. (Cheese can be a good source of vitamin D only if it’s made with vitamin D-fortified milk, which it’s typically not.) A serving (1-1/2 ounces) of firm natural cheese contains about 300 milligrams of calcium, the amount in eight ounces of dairy-based milk.
Liabilities: Cheese is a concentrated source of calories, a byproduct of its fat content. And, whether you’re nibbling, cooking or topping (think casseroles, sauces, pizza and sandwiches), cheese contributes a sizable slice of saturated fat to our collective total. The sodium count in cheese also goes in the liability column.
The notion that all saturated fats are created equal and are therefore equally damaging to our cardiometabolic health is being challenged. Cardiometabolic health is a measure of your risk for prediabetes or Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It comprises a set of measures including weight, blood cholesterol (lipids), blood pressure and glucose control.
Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist who is dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston, conjectures that full-fat dairy foods may be less damaging to our cardiometabolic health for at least three reasons: The types and profile of fats in dairy foods are different from those in red meat; the milk fat in dairy foods occurs as globules emulsified in milk, which is different from the saturated fat in other foods; and cheese is fermented, adding a dose of good bacteria to the gut.
“Some, and growing, evidence suggests possible benefits of regular-fat over reduced-fat dairy foods, but more important is the type of dairy food, with yogurt and cheese appearing to be especially beneficial,” Mozaffarian said in an email. But, he added, the science is not yet conclusive enough to recommend that people consume only regular-fat dairy foods. He calls for more research in this area, given the enormous role of dairy foods in the U.S. diet.
Marian Neuhouser, nutritional epidemiologist and senior faculty member at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, agreed about the state of the science on this subject. “Yes, cheese is a cultured food since it is transformed from milk, a liquid, to a solid, and many cheeses also use a bacterial culture thought of as fermentation, but any health benefits of this is as yet not known,” she wrote in an email.
“There’s insufficient evidence to suggest the fatty acid profile in cheese is less damaging to our cardiometabolic health than the fatty acid profile in red meat,” she added.
Set Limits on Servings
Calories count, and most cheese is high in calories. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines continue to emphasize limiting saturated fat. The guidelines recommend that adults and children older than age 8 consume three servings of “dairy equivalents” per day. According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report, less than 20 percent of the U.S. population meets this goal.
A dairy equivalent of cheese is an ounce and a half of natural cheese, two ounces of processed cheese or two cups of cottage cheese (a large portion!). The guidelines suggest choosing fat-free and low-fat (1 percent) options. Mozaffarian agrees with the recommended number of servings of dairy foods, but he encourages people to choose dairy foods with whatever amount of fat they prefer.
Strategies to Avoid Overeating
Nibbling or Topping Foods:
Buy reduced-fat, part-skim varieties that please your palate.
Eat cheese at room temperature for better flavor. (Allow 30 minutes for it to warm up.)
Pair cheese with fresh or dried fruit, jam, raw vegetables, or whole-grain bread or crackers.
Choose cheese as a portable, nonperishable snack. A number of cheeses are now packaged in easy-to-tote single servings.
Sprinkle cheese on salads rather than serving it in chunks. Try flavorful blue, feta or goat cheese.
Use shredded or grated cheese to top foods. (Shred or grate it yourself; it’s less expensive.)
Cooking or Baking:
Choose a sharp or extra-sharp cheese to reduce the quantity called for in a recipe. A bit of flavorful cheese goes a long way!
Select reduced-fat or fat-free ricotta or cottage cheese in recipes.
Use a reduced-fat or part-skim cheese. Shred or grate it to spread it further.
Warshaw, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, is the author of numerous books.