It’s creamy, it’s yummy, it can be added to pretty much anything. Melted, it’s to die for. But is cheese healthy? What’s the healthiest way to eat it? Dr Linia Patel explains.
Types of cheese1
There are thousands of different varieties of cheese made around the world. Many cheeses are made using cows’ milk, but cheese can also be made from the milk of goats, sheep and other animals.
- Whole milk.Whole-milk cheeses are made from full-fat milk. These will be higher in saturated fat.
- Low fat and reduced fat. A reduced-fat cheese isn’t necessarily low fat, it just means it has 25% less fat than the original version.
- Aged cheeses.The ageing process tends to create stronger flavours. Aged cheeses include parmesan and cheddar.
- Fresh cheeses.Fresh cheeses are soft in texture, such as ricotta and cottage cheese. Having a higher water content, these cheeses are commonly thought to be higher in protein and lower in fat per 100g.
Is cheese healthy?2,3,4,5
Well, it’s complicated. In short, the issue isn’t black and white. Overall, cheese can be a nutritious addition to a healthy and balanced diet. Cheese contains saturated fat and nutrition guidelines tell us we need to eat less saturated fat. In the UK, it’s recommended that a man eats no more than 30g of saturated fat a day and the average women no more than 20g of saturated fat a day. Doing this has been reported to help reduce our risk of heart disease. However, we are learning that the source of saturated fat may be critical – with certain sources being worse for your heart than others. Some cheeses, for example, are fermented and emerging research suggests that the fermentation process favourably influences your microbiome, providing a beneficial effect on your cholesterol levels and inflammatory responses. This suggests that, while an individual nutrient such as saturated fat may be harmful if eaten in excess, other components in a whole food – in this case, cheese – may alter the impact.
Are some cheeses healthier than others?6
Cheese contains saturated fat but some cheeses are also a source of protein and calcium and some offer additional health benefits. Here is how they compare:
|Cheese||Protein/100g||Total fat/100g||Saturated fat/100g||Calcium/100g (mg)||Sodium/100g (mg)|
|Ricotta (full fat)||31.8||26.9||17.1||1,064||1,200|
In general, white cheeses contain less fat than yellow cheeses; however, white cheeses made with full-cream milk still contain fat. Fat is a calorie-dense nutrient, so you need to watch your portion size. In the UK, the standard portion size for hard cheese is 30g (the size of a small matchbox). A portion of cottage cheese is 100g (two tablespoons). Cottage cheese is a curd-based cheese that naturally contains less fat than other cheeses, yet is still a good protein intake. Ricotta, an Italian curd cheese, is also a good protein choice. It can also be used instead of mozzarella or other cheeses to top your pizza. It has a delicate flavour, so can also be used in sweet dishes. It does, however, come with higher levels with salt, as do feta and halloumi cheese.
If you are looking for lower-salt cheeses, mozzarella and goats’ cheese are your choice. Mozzarella also contains bacteria that act as probiotics, including Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus fermentum.
Goats’ cheeses are touted as being better for people with lactose intolerance than soft cheeses made from whole milk; however, goats’ cheese actually has a similar lactose content to other semi-soft cheeses such as brie or feta, but it is lower in lactose than wetter cheeses like ricotta and cottage cheese.
If you would like to include cheese in your diet, here is a healthy way to approach it:
- Be mindful of portion sizes. While the saturated fat in cheese may not be as harmful as we once thought, we still can’t say firmly if the saturated fat in cheese is neutral or beneficial. Cheese is a calorie-dense food, so portion size is key.
- Watch the sodium. Some 30g portions of cheese contain as much salt as a packet of crisps. We eat too much salt and cheese is one of the leading contributors to this. If you need to watch your salt intake a little more, then remember that ricotta, feta, halloumi and parmesan cheese are on the saltier side.
- Consider the protein content. Like all nutrients in cheese, protein amounts can differ. Higher protein cheeses include ricotta, cottage cheese and parmesan.
- Limit heavily processed cheese. General nutrition advice is that you need to minimise your intake of heavily processed foods, and the same goes for cheese too. Processed cheese tends to come with more sodium and with additives like emulsifiers that have a negative impact on your gut bacteria.
- Don’t fret if you are not a cheese lover. Cheese is a good source of calcium. However, other dairy products such as yogurt and milk are just as good for your bones and lower in saturated fat and salt! Plant sources of calcium include tofu, salmon, sardines, edamame and dark green leafy vegetables like kale or spinach.
Dr Linia Patel has a BSc degree in biochemistry and physiology and has recently achieved a PhD in public health. Linia is a leading dietitian and sports nutritionist. Her passion is translating nutritional science into easy-to-digest and practical advice.
- Tunick et al (2015), Dairy products and health. Recent insights, J Agric Food Chem., 63(43): 9,381-8.
- Lordan et al (2018), Dairy fats and cardiovascular disease: Do we really need to be concerned?, Foods, 7(3): 29.
- Kumar et al (2017), Nutrients in dairy and their implications on health and disease. Chapter 10, Flavour Addition in Dairy Products: Health Benefits and Risks, 123-35.
- Heilson et al (2020), Dietary saturated fat and heart disease, a narrative review, Nutr Rev., 78(6): 474-85.
- Jeronymo-Ceneviva, A et al (2017), Probiotic properties of lactic acid bacteria isolated from water buffalo mozzarella cheese, Probiotics Antimicrob Proteins, 141-56.
- Nutritics Nutritional Software.