This year, I am celebrating 25 years as a consultant to the U.S. dairy industry, and 20 years as a columnist for Dairy Foods magazine. There have been lots of fun and interesting assignments over the years. Perhaps one of my favorites was attending the 2017 American Cheese Society meeting in Denver. Imagine spending three days sampling some of the most delicious cheeses on the planet.
Cheese has occasionally gotten a bad nutrition rap because of its content of saturated fat and sodium, but in fact the latest research shows that cheese is quite healthy.
Health benefits update
Cheese has its place in a healthy eating pattern, according to the 2023 National Dairy Council (NDC) publication, “8 Ways Cheese can Help your Body,” providing 8 essential nutrients for wellness: calcium, protein, phosphorus, selenium, iodine, riboflavin, niacin and vitamin B12. The body of research outlined in NDC’s “Science Summary Cheese & Health” indicates cheese is not associated with cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk, based on high-quality evidence.
A new meta-analysis (“Cheese consumption and multiple health outcomes: an umbrella review and updated meta-analysis of prospective studies, Advances in Nutrition, 2023”), supports the evidence: “According to the NutriGrade scoring system, moderate quality of evidence was observed for inverse associations of cheese consumption with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality, incident CVD, CHD, and stroke, and for null associations with cancer mortality, incident hypertension and prostate cancer. Our findings suggest that cheese consumption has neutral to moderate benefits for human health,” said Dr. Moises Torres-Gonzalez, director of nutrition research at the National Dairy Council.
This meta-analysis shares lesser-known health benefits of cheese, especially for seniors. “Cheese is also a source of probiotics and bioactive molecules (e.g., bioactive peptides, lactoferrin, short-chain fatty acids, and milk fat globule membrane). Vitamin K2 [in cheese] can improve cardiovascular health by inhibiting and reversing vascular calcification, reduce age-related bone loss … and maintain neurocognitive functions through contributing to the biological activation of proteins Gas6 and protein S and the synthesis of sphingolipids.”
A new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “The Contribution of Terrestrial Animal Source Food to Healthy Diets for Improved Nutrition and Health Outcomes: An Evidence and Policy Overview on the State of the Knowledge and Gaps,” highlights the critical nutrient contributions of terrestrial animal sourced foods, such as dairy, and their role in supporting health throughout the lifecycle.
Milk and dairy products have been associated with several positive health outcomes at many life stages. Additionally, dairy’s unique natural food matrix includes compounds that enhance its digestion and absorption, such as casein, which acts as a carrier for calcium and phosphorus.
Different types of cheese vary in their dairy matrix, moisture level, serving size, and content of nutrients like fat and sodium. Here’s a rundown on cheeses that deliver extra nutritional benefits. Nutrient content may vary by brand.
More Protein: A half cup of cottage cheese delivers 13 grams of high-quality protein. A quarter cup of ricotta boasts 6 grams of protein. Ricotta cheese is made primarily from whey protein, one of the most bioavailable forms of protein, and also optimal for individuals who are trying to build muscle and strength while also losing fat and weight.
Less Sodium: While some cheeses contain up to 400 or 500 mg of sodium per ounce, other cheeses are better for consumers who are watching their sodium content. One ounce of cream cheese has only 95 mg. and an ounce of Swiss cheese has just 85 mg.
More Calcium: Many cheeses contain 15% of the recommended 1,300 mg Daily Value for calcium, or roughly 200 mg. A few superstars in the calcium category include Gruyere with 250 mg per ounce, Swiss with 250 mg per ounce, and Hard Parmesan with 325 mg per ounce.
Fewer Calories: A 1-ounce serving of fresh mozzarella has just 80 calories and 75 mg of sodium. An American single slice has just 50 calories and is an excellent source of calcium. A stick of part-skim mozzarella has just 70 to 80 calories and 6 grams of protein. A tablespoon of grated parmesan contains only 22 calories.
Less Lactose: Most aged cheeses, such as sharp cheddar, as well as the softer Munster, Camembert and Brie, contain little to no lactose. If the Nutrition Facts panel shows 0 grams of sugar per serving, then lactose content will be in the acceptable range for most consumers.
My go-to afternoon snack is a slice of string cheese and an apple. Cheese plus fruit makes an excellent dessert. Dental Hygiene Canada suggests eating hard cheese after meals or as a snack as a practical strategy to help prevent tooth decay. They explain that cheese helps to protect teeth from bacteria and also contains calcium, which helps to build and maintain teeth.