Guest blog by Sam Hadadi,
Part one of our Guide looked at the history of cheese and how it's made. You can read Part One here.
For a long time, cheese (and, in fact, all dairy) has been off the ‘healthy’ list. In fact, cheese has become something of a dirty word, a food often seen as unhealthy. Ask any health-conscious, gym-loving person and it’s unlikely that cheese will be high on their list of must-buy foods.
As you probably know, fromage has a pretty bad rep for clogging arteries and forcing you to pile on the pounds. Yet, is this unfair on our beloved cheese? After all, the French swear by cheese and its myriad benefits.
So, is it gouda or bad? (sorry!) And, if it’s good for us, what health benefits can cheese have to offer?
Choose good quality cheeses
Well, first off, let’s point out that any health benefits of cheese will largely depend on the quality of the cheese you’re buying. Highly-processed, packaged cheeses (the kind you find sitting heavily on greasy hamburgers, or stowed away in brightly-coloured parcels) do not have the same health benefits that artisan cheeses have. More on that later…
So, please take these health benefits with a tiny sprinkling of salt. As always, eat the best quality items and foods you can and your body will reap the rewards!
High in Calcium and Protein
Cheese is packed full of wonderful, bone-loving calcium. Just one small serving can get in plenty of your RDA of calcium, which is fantastic for building healthier, stronger bones. Better still, because cheese contains certain B vitamins, the calcium from it can be better absorbed by our body than that in other dairy produce.
Cheese is also key in helping our pearly whites to stay strong and healthy. In fact, a study1 by the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD) discovered that cheese could actually protect our teeth from acid erosion caused by coffee, tea, wine or fruit juice.
Why? Well, to get a little bit more scientific, when we sip on drinks like these, the natural pH levels of our mouth can be affected (the pH falls) which, in turn, can damage our tooth enamel. Often, our mouth’s saliva can help to bring pH levels back to normal, yet cheese can help our mouth to do this even faster. In fact, a Finnish study2 found that the well-known probiotic Lactobacillus, which is found in cheese, also helps to lower cavity-causing yeast in the mouth.
Cheese is also high in protein. For example, the humble Cheddar cheese is around a quarter protein, while Parmesan is a whopping 42 per cent protein. Other cheeses high in protein include Romano and non-fat Mozarella (both 32 per cent), hard goat’s cheese (31 per cent), Gruyere (30 per cent), and Swiss, full-fat Mozarella and low-fat Monterey cheese (all 28 per cent protein). Meanwhile, ricotta cheese is high in whey protein, which is useful if you’re looking to build up those strong, lean guns.
Who needs a protein shake, now…?
Good for the Heart?
Contrary to what many of us may think, there are some that even believe cheese is good for the heart. In fact, the belief that cheese could support cardiovascular health is something that has mystified many researchers and dieticians for years.
Enjoying cheese to finish off a meal
It even has a name – the French Paradox. You see, the French are renowned world-wide for their love of cheese (among other delicious things that we see as ‘bad’ for us, such as wine and baguettes).
In fact, your typical Frenchman eats more cheese per year – a whopping 57 pounds - than anyone else on the planet (almost double that of your typical American3). Yet, in spite of this, the French have a low rate of coronary heart disease – the lowest in the world4.
Could it be that cheese is actually good for the heart?
More and more, we’re starting to recognise the importance of gut health5. To do this, we should be eating foods that encourage probiotics – also known as ‘good’ bacteria – to thrive and flourish. This is said to be essential for our body and can boost our digestive system, strengthen the immune system, tackle obesity6, and even improve the mood.
Cheese – or at least, certain cheese - is full of those wonderful, beneficial probiotics that can support our body from the inside, out. To boost our friendly bacteria, we should be eating soft, fermented cheeses such as Swiss, Parmesan, Cheddar and Gouda, which can sometimes be fermented for years, encouraging all kinds of healthy bacteria to thrive7. You can also find certain cottage cheeses which list ‘live active cultures’ (probiotics, in other words!) in their ingredients.
Can Ward off Diabetes
As we now know, not all fats are created equally. In fact, there are some which have been linked to all sorts of amazing health benefits.
Many will still look down their nose at cheese, assuming it’s packed with the ‘bad’ kind of fats. And, often, it is (yes, we are looking at those packaged strips of cheese!). However, a study in 2014 suggested that saturated fats, such as those found in dairy and cheese, can actually reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes8.
Professor Arne Astrup, head of the department of nutrition at the University of Copenhagen, said, "People who eat a lot of dairy, show no difference in their risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes or mortality compared with people who eat small amounts. If anything, there is a small risk reduction - so it is actually beneficial.
“Cheese is full of saturated fat and salt, so you'd think it would be the worst thing you could eat in terms of raising the risk of cardiovascular disease. But when you look at what happens to people who eat a lot of cheese, you see the complete opposite: it seems to protect against cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.”
Meanwhile, a further study in 2014, discovered that men fed a diet high in milk and cheese had lower levels of the so-called “bad” cholesterol (LDL) than those who ate a low-dairy diet, but with similar amounts of saturated fat. Scientists believe that this could be because calcium may bind to fats and affect how we absorb them. In short, we lose most of the fats as waste.
Yet, before all you fromage fiends jump for joy, there’s a flip side to your cheese…
High in Fat
While it’s still being debated whether or not the fats in cheese are good or bad for us, fat is still something we need to eat in moderation. And there are many studies which aren’t singing the praises for cheese and its benefits for our waistlines.
In fact, one study9 went so far as to say that meat and cheese could be as bad for us as smoking. It found that those eating a diet high in proteins, such as those found in meat and cheese, during middle age could more than double their risk of death, and even quadruple their risk of death by cancer.
If in doubt, try reaching for a cheese that’s lower in fats or calories. For example, a spoonful of cottage cheese, which is lower in fats. Feta cheese and mozzarella are also “healthier” options when it comes to fat content.
Surprisingly, though (and, just to add to your confusion!), some high-fat cheeses (such as Brie, Blue cheese and strong, mature Cheddar) contain small amounts of conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA. For those in the know, CLA, an antioxidant, is popular among certain health circles because it is thought to promote fat loss by converting fat to energy. Some even believe that it is anti-carcinogenic, meaning that it can also protect against cancer.
However, again, a pinch of salt needs to be taken – you’d need to eat a whole lot of cheese to get the amount of CLA found in supplement form!
High in Salt
Another word of caution: cheese also packs in a fair amount of salt. We all know that too much salt can be bad for us, leading to problems such as high blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
So, if in doubt, ease back on the cheese a little. To put things into perspective, a slice of cheddar contains 174 milligrams of sodium10. While this won’t exactly cause our body to explode (it’s advised that we eat no more than 6g of salt, or 2.4g of sodium a day11), it’s a fairly high amount for just one slice of cheese.
For those who do have blood pressure concerns and need to cut back on salt, there are cheeses that are much lower in sodium. Delicious Parmesan, which always makes our pasta dishes, contains just 76 milligrams of sodium10 per grated tablespoon.
More and more, we are becoming intolerant to certain foods. From gluten to lactose, there are now huge amounts of people living with intolerances in the UK. So, what if we are lactose-intolerant?
As we mentioned earlier, cheese contains lactose, a sugar that can’t be digested by many people. For them, eating lactose can cause tummy problems, such as gas and bloating.
For those with a severe intolerance, cheese should obviously be avoided wherever possible.
However, if you are happy to experiment, there are cheeses on the market which have a much lower amount of lactose.
These cheeses include Parmesan, Cheddar, Gouda, Swiss cheese, Mozzarella and Brie, which sees much of the lactose removed during the manufacturing and ageing process. A small 28g portion of these cheeses contain less than a gram of lactose, compared to the hefty 12grams you’d find in a glass of milk.
Of course, it can all get a little confusing sometimes – is cheese good or bad for you when there is so much conflicting advice out there?
Well, as with most things, enjoy it, but in moderation! Rather than smothering all your food in gooey, melted cheese, or ordering triple cheese pizzas, try to enjoy smaller portions of good quality cheese instead.
If you want to join us in indulging in a delicious bit of cheese every now and then (after all, life is for enjoying!), which are the healthiest ones to buy?
Here are the cheeses that pass any test and should sit proudly on your shopping list:
Whether tossed through rainbow summer salads, or sprinkled over a delicious omelette, creamy Feta is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
This Greek favourite is lower in fat and calories than many other cheese varieties, and also has a strong and punchy flavour, which means you can get away with using a lot less.
Since Feta is also often made from goat’s milk, it can also be suitable for those who are intolerant to cow’s milk. However, please bear in mind that unpasteurised Feta has a higher risk of containing the Listeria bacteria, which needs to be avoided when you are pregnant.
Parmesan is so delicious that it’s said to have inspired all sorts of crazy behaviour. In fact, Samuel Pepys famously buried his Parmesan cheese to keep it safe during the Great Fire of London.
Coming from the Parma area of Italy, Parmesan packs a real punch when it comes to flavour – and this is why it’s good to have in the fridge! You see, just a little Parmesan goes a long, long way, and it is also relatively low in calories, too. However, bear in mind that it does contain large amounts of sodium, so keep it to a minimum.
This lumpy-looking cheese is beloved by dieters and bodybuilders across the globe – and for good reason. Cottage cheese may not be the prettiest, but it is high in protein, low in calories (the low-fat kind, anyway), and also versatile enough to work into all sorts of dishes. Similarly, Indian paneer is also a healthier option to try.
Delicious, creamy Ricotta can really make a pasta dish sing. Yet, it’s not as unhealthy as you might imagine. In fact, half a cup can pack in 14 grams of protein and 25 percent of your RDA of calcium, while it’s also low in sodium and high in phosphorus, B vitamins, vitamin A, and zinc.
A hard, Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk, Pecorino contains pretty high amounts of fat-burning CLA, and has been found to lower our risk of arteriosclerosis, or the thickening and hardening of artery walls. It also contains anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting properties12. Now, cut us a slice…
It’s hard not to love salty, versatile Halloumi. With its high melting point, it’s perfect for frying or grilling, or enjoying in burgers and pittas. While this Cypriot-favourite is fairly high in fat and salt, its strong taste means not much is needed, and it is also low in lactose since it comes from goats or sheep. Plus, it’s fairly high in protein – around 6g in every 28g serving.
So, what of raw cheese? What’s the deal there?
Well, first up, raw milk (and therefore the cheese made from it) has not been heated and treated enough to kill bacteria.
In spite of this, there are many who argue that raw cheese is the healthiest, most delicious variety we could ever hope to eat. Yet, on the other side of the wall, there are those who warn us off it and argue that raw, or unpasteurised, cheese, is not fit for eating.
This is because the pasteurisation process kills pathogens such as Listeria and e. Coli, which can be found in raw milk. In fact, Scotland has a complete ban on raw milk-based products, while it is difficult to buy here in the UK – it is generally only sold by independent producers, who have to go through all sorts of rigmarole to gain the privilege.
So, why take the risk? Well, there are those who argue that raw cheeses are even more delicious, and full of exciting, strong flavours which pasteurisation can kill. In fact, it is so distinctive that the flavours can vary according to the cow the milk came from, and even the diet and grass it has grazed on.
Fans of raw cheeses also believe that it is better for our gut – raw milk is, after all, full of good bacteria to boost our inner gut and also digestive enzymes, which helps our body to digest the fats and proteins. Meanwhile, it is said to be higher, too, in healthy fats, such as omega-3s, and loaded with more vitamins. There are even those who believe raw dairy products can help children with allergies, such as those with asthma13.
Of course, given that no one can quite agree, it is up to you as to whether or not you’d like to try the raw dairy movement. However, if you do fancy indulging, we would recommend that you always buy from a trusted, reputable source before eating.
Has this given you a hankering for cheese? Let us know your favourites either here or over on twitter.
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.