But when people talk about their penchant for cheese, it’s often in a guilty way, as in “Cheese is my weakness.”
“Cheese is packed with nutrients like protein, calcium, and phosphorus, and can serve a healthy purpose in the diet,” says Lisa Young, adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. Research shows that even high-fat cheese won’t necessarily make you gain weight or give you a heart attack. Cheese doesn’t appear to increase or reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and some studies show it may even be protective.
Good bacteria, less risk of saturated fats
It’s easy to see why people might feel conflicted with cheese. For years, U.S. Dietary Guidelines have said it’s best to eat low-fat dairy products because whole-milk products, such as whole cheese, contain saturated fat, which can increase the rate of LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol), a known risk of heart disease. Cheese has also been blamed for weight gain and digestive issues such as bloating. It turns out, however, that cheese may have been misunderstood.
Yes, it is high in calories: some types contain 100 or more calories per ounce. And it’s high in saturated fat. So why is it okay for most people to eat it? “Cheese is more than just its saturated fat content,” says Emma Feeney, an assistant professor at University College Dublin’s Institute of Food and Health, who studies the effect of cheese on health.
Old-school thinking about nutrition has focused on individual nutrients — such as fats or proteins — that promote or prevent disease. It’s not clear that this is the wrong approach, but nutrition experts are now placing more emphasis on the whole food and how its structure, nutrients, enzymes and other components interact with each other.
When milk is made into cheese, the process changes the way the nutrients and other components it contains are chemically organized. This has an effect on how it is digested and processed by the body, which may have different health effects than consuming the same nutrients in another form, such as butter.
In 2018, Feeney conducted a six-week clinical trial in which 164 people each ate an equal amount of dairy fat in the form of butter or cheese, then switched over the course of the study. “We found that the saturated fat in cheese did not raise LDL cholesterol to the same degree as butter,” she says.
Experts have different theories about why saturated fat in cheese is less harmful. “Some studies show that the mineral content of cheese, especially calcium, can bind to fatty acids in the gut and remove them from the body,” says Feeney. Other studies suggest that the fatty acids called sphingolipids in cheese may increase the activity of genes that help the body break down cholesterol.
When cheese is made, it also acquires beneficial compounds. “Vitamin K can form during the fermentation process,” says Sarah Booth, director of the vitamin K laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Aging Research Center at Tufts University in Boston. The vitamin is important for blood clotting and the health of bones and blood vessels.
And as a fermented food, “raw, pasteurized cheese contains good bacteria that can benefit the human gut microbiota,” says Adam Brock, vice president of food safety, quality and regulatory compliance for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. These friendly bacteria, found primarily in aged cheeses like cheddar and gouda, help break down food, synthesize vitamins, prevent disease-causing bacteria from taking hold, and boost immunity. .
Weight gain, misunderstanding of lactose
Cheese also appears to reduce the risk of weight gain and several chronic diseases.
Weight gain: Cheese is a concentrated source of calories. But studies suggest you don’t need to skip cheese to keep your balance stable. In one, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers set out to determine which foods were linked to weight gain by following 120,877 men and women in the United States for 20 years, examining their weight every four years. Cheese was associated with neither gain nor loss, even for people who increased the amount consumed during the study.
One of the reasons cheese can help with weight control is that it can reduce appetite more than other dairy products.
Heart disease: A large meta-analysis of 15 studies published in the European Journal of Nutrition that examined the effect of cheese on cardiovascular disease found that people who ate the most (1.5 ounces per day) had a 10% lower risk to those who did not eat it. Further analyzes have shown that cheese does not appear to affect heart disease risk in any way.
Diabetes and hypertension: Cheese and whole dairy products also appear to be linked to a lower risk of both. In a study of more than 145,000 people in 21 countries, researchers found that consuming two daily servings of whole dairy products or a mixture of whole, low-fat dairy products was linked to a reduction of 24 and 11% risk of both conditions compared to not eating. Eating only low-fat dairy products slightly increased the risk. And among people who didn’t have diabetes or high blood pressure at the start of the nine-year study, those who ate two servings of dairy products a day were less likely to develop the diseases during the study.
Lactose intolerance: Lactose, a sugar found in milk, can be difficult for some people to digest, leading to diarrhea, bloating and other gastrointestinal symptoms. But the bacteria used to make cheese digest most of the lactose in milk, says Jamie Png of the American Cheese Society. Much of the remaining lactose is in the whey, which separates from the curd towards the end of the cheese-making process and is drained off. If you are lactose sensitive, limit yourself to hard or aged cheeses such as cheddar, provolone, parmesan, blue, camembert and gouda, and minimize fresh soft cheeses such as ricotta and cottage cheese.
Even though cheese itself doesn’t seem to have any negative health effects, how you incorporate it into your overall diet is important.
In most research suggesting a neutral or beneficial effect, the highest amount of cheese people ate each day averaged around 1.5 ounces, but in some cases it was as high as 3 ounces. (An ounce of cheese is about the size of your outstretched thumb.)
In some studies, the health benefits of cheese have been shown to be greatest when replacing a less healthy food like red or processed meats. So there’s a big difference between crumble blue cheese on a salad and serve a pepperoni pizza with double cheese. “Incorporating cheese into a Mediterranean-style diet where you also include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods known to reduce disease risk will benefit your overall health the most,” Young says.
For those watching their sodium intake, cheese can be quite salty. (Salt acts as a preservative.) If you’re eating about an ounce a day, that’s not a big deal. Most types give you between 150 and 300 milligrams of sodium per ounce. (Daily Value is no more than 2,300 mg.) Eat more, though, and sodium can build up.
The form the cheese takes can also influence its health effects. “Many studies of cheese and health use cheese in an unprocessed form,” Feeney says. “We still don’t know how melting or cooking affects health outcomes, for example, eating cheese on pizza or in cooked dishes like casseroles.”
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