If you’re a cheese lover struggling to resist cheese because you’ve heard it’s not good for you, then brace yourself for some really good news. Cheese can be an excellent source of nutrition, a food you may want to include more of in your diet rather than less.
Cheese, especially that made from the milk of grass-pastured animals, is an excellent source of several important nutrients.
One of the most valuable nutrients in cheese is vitamin K2, which the latest scientific studies indicate is even more important to your heart, brain and bones than previously thought. Cheese also provides a cornucopia of vitamins, minerals (including calcium), protein, and fat.
Even if you’re lactose intolerant, there are many cheeses you will likely tolerate just fine. Most of the lactose is removed during the cheesemaking process. Pairing cheese with other foods enhances your absorption of important nutrients.
This article aims to separate fact from myth and will provide guidance on how you can incorporate your favorite cheeses into your daily diet, with joy and gratitude instead of guilt.
Cheese Will Clog Up Your Arteries… and Other Food Fairytales
Although nobody knows for certain when or where cheesemaking first began, cheese has been a staple for thousands of years. Cheese dates back to the domestication of milk-producing animals, between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago.1 The history of cheese can be traced back to the Roman Empire, the Middle East, Tibet, Mongolia, the Ming Dynasty, and of course Europe.
In spite of its rich history and enthusiastic fan base, cheese is much maligned in America due to the saturated fat/cholesterol myth.
Does eating cheese lead to obesity and heart disease? Absolutely not! This unfortunate myth stems from an outdated and seriously flawed hypothesis, perpetuated by decades of wildly successful marketing.
Numerous recent studies have confirmed saturated fat is NOT associated with obesity or heart disease and is actually associated with improved heart health. Most Americans today are consuming inadequate saturated fat. In fact, the Greeks, French and Germans eat much more cheese than Americans but enjoy lower rates of hypertension and obesity.2
I believe one of the primary factors driving obesity is overconsumption of sugar, refined grain and processed food in the standard American diet, made worse by a sedentary lifestyle. Given these facts, many nutritional experts believe that most people need 50 to 70 percent healthful fats in their diet for optimal health, and I agree. Cheese is a delicious way to help you meet that requirement Cheese holds a wealth of good nutrition, including:
- High-quality protein and amino acids
- High-quality saturated fats and omega-3 fats
- Vitamins and minerals, including calcium, zinc, phosphorus, vitamins A, D, B2 (riboflavin) and B12
- Vitamin K2
- CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a powerful cancer-fighter and metabolism booster
Natural Cheese Versus Fake Cheese
There is a difference between natural cheese and processed “cheese foods.” Natural cheese is a simple fermented dairy product, made with nothing more than a few basic ingredients — milk, starter culture, salt and an enzyme called rennet. Salt is a crucial ingredient for flavor, ripening and preservation. You can tell a natural cheese by its label, which will state the name of the cheese variety, such as “cheddar cheese,” “blue cheese,” or “brie.” Real cheese requires refrigeration.
The starter culture and cheesemaking methods are what give each variety of cheese its particular taste, texture, shape and nutritional profile. The following factors differentiate between one variety of cheese and another:
- Specific starter culture, which is the bacteria or mold strains that ripen the cheese
- Type of milk used (cow, sheep, goat, etc.), and the conditions under which those animals were raised
- Methods of curdling, cutting, cooking and forming the curd
- Ripening conditions such as temperature, humidity, and aging time (curing)
Processed cheese or “cheese food” is a different story. These products are typically pasteurized and otherwise adulterated with a variety of additives that detract from their nutritional value. The label will always include the words “pasteurized process,” which should be your clue to walk on by. Velveeta3 is one example, with additives like sodium phosphate, sodium citronate and various coloring agents. Another clue is that most don’t require refrigeration. So, be it Velveeta, Cheese Whiz, squeeze cheese, spray cheese, or some other imposter — these are NOT real cheeses and should be banished from your shopping cart.
Raw Cheese from Pasture-Raised Animals is the Ultimate
Ideally, the cheese you consume should be made from the milk of grass-fed animals raised on pasture, rather than grain-fed or soy-fed animals confined to feedlot stalls. The biologically appropriate diet for cows is grass, but 90 percent of standard grocery store cheeses are made from the milk of CAFO cows. These cheeses are nutritionally inferior to those from grass-pastured animals. The higher quality the milk, the higher the quality of the cheese… it’s just that simple.
Even cheesemakers will tell you that raw cheese has a richer and deeper flavor than cheese made from pasteurized milk because heat destroys the enzymes and good bacteria that add flavor to the cheese. They explain that raw cheese has flavors that derive from the pastureland that nourished the animals producing the milk, much like wine is said to draw its unique flavors from individual vineyards. Grass-fed dairy products not only taste better, they are also nutritionally superior:
- Cheese made from the milk of grass-fed cows has the ideal omega-6 to omega-3 fat ratio of 2:1. By contrast, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of grain-fed milk is heavily weighted on the side of omega-6 fats (25:1), which are already excessive in the standard American diet. Grass-fed dairy combats inflammation in your body, whereas grain-fed dairy contributes to it.
- Grass-fed cheese contains about five times the CLA of grain-fed cheese.
- Because raw cheese is not pasteurized, natural enzymes in the milk are preserved, increasing its nutritional punch.
- Grass-fed cheese is considerably higher in calcium, magnesium, beta-carotene, and vitamins A, C, D and E.
- Organic grass-fed cheese is free of antibiotics and growth hormones.
The FDA Cracks Down on Raw Cheese
For years, federal regulators have been threatening to ban raw milk products, including raw cheese, due to what they claim are increased safety risks. Lately, they’ve begun targeting artisan cheesemakers, as this is a fast growing industry in America.4
However, the FDA’s crackdown on raw cheese is based on a flawed argument.5 According to Grist, between 1973 and 1999 there’s not a single report of illness from either raw or pasteurized cheeses. However, since the year 2000, illnesses have begun to appear from raw and pasteurized cheese alike. Most outbreaks have been found to result from post-production contamination and laxity in quality control, not lack of pasteurization.
The truth is that raw cheese is not inherently dangerous, provided high standards are followed in the cheesemaking process. Hard cheeses like cheddar dry out as they age, making them relatively inhospitable to invading bacteria. The FDA’s attack on raw cheese is not based on facts, but simply is an extension of their long-standing hostility toward raw milk in general.
Salt Content Prompts Cries of ‘Cheesageddon’
Another recent concern is that cheese contains excessively high levels of salt. The Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) is a group interested in reducing the salt in processed foods and is urging the cheese industry to reduce the amount of salt in cheese.6 It is true that American food is the saltiest food in the world. But how much is cheese responsible for the excess sodium in the American diet?
Cheese looks like a minor player when you consider the amount of salt in processed food and restaurant food, and how much more of those are consumed than cheese. Take a look at the table below, which compares salt levels in the saltiest cheeses and in the saltiest restaurant dishes, and you’ll see what I mean. Keep in mind that your sodium intake should be less than about 2,300 mg per day, which is approximately a teaspoon.
About 90 percent of the salt in the standard American diet comes from packaged foods and restaurant foods. Only about 11 percent is attributable to the salt you add during cooking and at the dinner table. Your sodium intake is even lower if you salt your food with natural sea salt instead of processed salt. It seems clear to me that, given all of the nutrition packed into a relatively small piece of cheese, the sodium is not much of an issue, particularly if you minimize processed or packaged foods and don’t eat out often.
|Food (Cheeses Listed are the Saltiest Varieties)||Sodium (mg)|
|Roquefort cheese (100g)||1,300|
|Edam cheese (100g)||1,200|
|Feta cheese (100g)||1,200|
|Chicken McNuggets (100g)7||1,600|
|Dunkin Donuts Salt Bagel8||3,420|
|Ruby Tuesday Chicken Piccata||4,194|
|P.F. Chang’s Mu Shu Pork||5,820|
|Red Robin Buffalo Clucks and Fries||4,479|
|P.F. Chang’s Pork and Double Pan-Fried Noodles — awarded “Saltiest Food in America”||7,900|
Vitamin K2, Vitamin D3, and Calcium — A Whole in One!
Cheese contains a synergistic blend of nutrients that make it a veritable nutritional powerhouse. When consumed together, vitamins K2 and D3 and calcium are especially powerful for protecting your bones, brain and heart. And cheese contains all three! I recently interviewed Dr. Kate Rheamue-Bleue, a Naturopathic Physician and author of one of the most comprehensive books on vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 plays critical roles in protecting your heart, brain, and bones, as well as giving you some protection from cancer.9 Not only does K2 help channel calcium into the proper areas of your body (bones and teeth), it also prevents it from being deposited in areas where it shouldn’t, such as your arteries and soft tissues.
So, taking calcium supplements when you don’t have adequate vitamin K2 is a setup for arterial calcification and cardiovascular problems.
Since cheeses are all produced by different strains of bacteria, they differ in their total vitamin K2 content, as well as their K2 subtypes. Cheeses contain primarily subtypes MK-4, MK-8 and MK-9, in varying proportions. MK-4 is the least biologically active form (but the most abundant form in cheese), so it takes more of it for your body to benefit. MK-7, MK-8 and MK-9 stay active in your body longer so your body can benefit from much lower levels.
According to a 2009 Dutch study,10 subtypes MK-7, MK-8 and MK-9 are associated with reduced vascular calcification even at small dietary intakes (as low as 1 to 2 mcg per day).
When It Comes to K2, How Do Your Favorite Cheeses Stack Up?
In my interview with Dr. Rheamue-Bleue, she identified the cheeses highest in K2 are Gouda and Brie, which contain about 75 mcg per ounce. Hard cheeses are about 30 percent higher in vitamin K2 than soft cheeses. In perusing the nutritional tables myself, I found it interesting that the cheeses highest in vitamin K2 also tend to be the highest in protein and calcium — so the most nutritious overall. Just realize that the values listed for “vitamin K” in common nutritional tables are of limited value because they don’t specify what TYPE of vitamin K they’re measuring.
As it turns out, scientists have found high levels of MK-7 in one type of cheese: Edam.11 This is wonderful news for those of you who would much rather sit down to a slice of Edam than a bowl of natto! (Natto, a strongly fermented Japanese soybean product, has the highest MK-7 level of any food.)
Earlier, I made my case for selecting raw cheeses from grass-pastured, grass-fed animals. However, cheese contains a bacterially-derived form of K2, so it doesn’t matter if the cheese was made from grass-fed milk or not — the bacteria used to culture the cheese is the same. Grass-fed dairy is important for the other reasons I’ve already discussed — just not specifically for the K2.
To summarize then, if you’re going to select cheese with your primary goal being a good source of vitamin K2, the best ones are:
- Other cheeses with lesser, but significant, levels of K2: Cheddar, Colby, hard goat cheese, Swiss, and Gruyere.12
Smile and Say Cheese!
Cheese lovers rejoice! Don’t be afraid to add healthy high-quality cheese to your diet. Cheese offers a synergistic blend of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids, including the magic trio of vitamin D3, vitamin K2 and calcium. This nutrient triad is vitally important for reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. And don’t be afraid of raw cheese (as long as it comes from a reputable cheesemaker), which beats ordinary cheese in both taste and nutrition.
Your best option is cheese made from the milk of pasture-raised cows, sheep and goats, as opposed to feedlot livestock fed grain and soy.
Although some cheeses are fairly high in salt, their sodium levels pale in comparison to those in common fast foods, processed foods and popular restaurant entrees that make up a large part of the standard American diet. My top picks are Gouda, Brie, and Edam cheese, but you can’t go wrong with high-quality cheddar, Swiss, Colby, Gruyere, and goat cheese. For an extensive website about cheeses, including a database that’s searchable by name, country of origin, type of milk, and even texture, you might enjoy Cheese.com.
Sources and References
- 1 National Historic Cheesemaking Center
- 2 National Dairy Council “Cheese & Nutrition”
- 3 Diet Facts Velveeta
- 4 New York Times February 4, 2011
- 5 Grist February 10, 2011
- 6 Guardian November 29, 2012
- 7 NPR April 16, 2012
- 8 Men’s Health
- 9 ChrisKresser May 6, 2008
- 10 Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis September 2009
- 11 MedKB February 15, 2009
- 12 NutritionData