Say Cheese, Please!

Humans have been making cheese for about 8,000 years. Originally a way to preserve milk in the pre-refrigeration era, cheese is a delicious part of many traditional diets, including the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. But the healthfulness of cheese remains controversial, largely because of its saturated fat content. However, many studies suggest that the health effects of saturated fat depend on which food it’s found in.

Get to Know These Delicious Cheeses

Blue. There are many types of “blue” cheese. Roquefort is a bold sheep’s milk cheese from France. Stilton is a mellow cow’s milk cheese from England. Gorgonzola, a cow’s milk cheese from Italy, is in between.

Brie. A soft, moist, velvety cow’s milk cheese from France. It should never be runny.

Buffalo Mozzarella. A water buffalo’s milk cheese from Italy. It’s firm, yet creamy, with a thin, tight skin.

Cheddar. A cow’s milk cheese that originated in England. Fine cheddar has a complex flavor and a texture that is both crumbly and creamy.

Chevre. A goat’s milk cheese from France. Texture can be soft or firm.

Comte. A cow’s milk cheese and one of France’s best-selling cheeses. The color varies based on where the cows grazed.

Feta. A sheep’s or mixed sheep’s and goat’s milk cheese from Greece. Salty, moist and tangy, with a creamy, crumbly texture.

Gouda. A cow’s milk cheese from the Netherlands. Flavor intensifies with age.

Gruyere. A cow’s milk cheese from Switzerland with dense, firm, smooth texture. A favorite for cooking.

Parmigiano-Reggiano. A cow’s milk cheese from Italy. Has the highest calcium and protein content.

Ricotta. A fresh, soft Italian cheese made from the whey that’s left over from production of other cheeses.

When looking at the influence of full-fat dairy on disease risk, it appears that fermented, cultured dairy products like yogurt and cheese have an edge. Research supports that cheese intake is associated with reduced risks of stroke and type 2 diabetes, and has no effect on the risk of heart disease. The reason may be the other nutrients—and microbes—in cheese.

Nutrients and Fermentation. Cheese and other dairy foods are a complex “food matrix” of vitamins, minerals, proteins and carbohydrates, as well as a variety of fats. Cheese also has a diverse array of beneficial (probiotic) microbes, primarily bacteria and fungi. Both the microbes themselves and the compounds that they produce during fermentation—especially the long fermentation times seen in traditionally produced cheeses—may have health benefits.

“When we eat, we do not consume individual nutrients. We eat the whole food. Either alone or together with other foods in a meal,” says Arne Astrup, MD, DMSc, of the University of Copenhagen, who has co-authored several research papers on the health effects of dairy foods. He points out that we can’t predict a food’s health effects solely on the basis of individual nutrients. “There are interactions between the nutrients in a food that are significant for its overall effect on health.”

Saturated Fat Content. Saturated fat raises “bad” LDL cholesterol, and high LDL is considered a risk factor for CVD. Accordingly, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends keeping saturated fat intake below 10 percent of total calories. However, in its 2015 report, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee called for more research examining the effects of saturated fats from different food sources, because not all sources of saturated fat may have the same effect on cholesterol and other risk factors for disease.

About 70 percent of milk fat is saturated, but Astrup notes that cheese affects blood cholesterol less than you would think. He says this may be because the calcium in cheese—it’s an excellent source—blocks some fat from being absorbed. That calcium, together with certain proteins in cheese, may help lower blood pressure, while some compounds produced during fermentation may help the body use insulin better.

How to Eat Cheese. Create a delicious balance by enjoying cheese in moderation, pairing small portions with plant foods that have established benefits for reducing disease risk:

  • Enjoy an ounce of cheese with a piece of fruit for a snack.
  • Use cheese to add zip to a leafy green salad.
  • Choose highly flavorful cheeses so you’ll feel satisfied with less.
  • Avoid mindless eating: Don’t eat straight from the block or wedge.
  • Think Mediterranean: sprinkle feta on hummus, or add it to a bean and whole grain salad.

—Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN

Tips for Cooking With Cheese

  •  Hard cheeses are easier to shred when cold.
  •  Unless they are made of wax, cheese rinds are edible, but vary in texture, bitterness and flavor. Toss a Parmesan rind into a pot of soup for a savory umami boost.
  •  When adding shredded or crumbled cheese to pasta or other hot dishes, wait until immediately before serving.
  •  Cheeses that don’t melt well include feta, ricotta and fresh mozzarella. Those that do melt well, include cheddar and gruyere.
  •  To prevent cheese from separating during cooking, bake cheesy dishes at 375 degrees F or lower.

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