Around the world, cheese makers have developed thousands of different varieties of cheeses, each with a unique taste, texture and nutritional profile. Yet at its core, cheese is a complex food made from a few simple ingredients. Despite its higher fat and caloric content, cheese also contains a host of nutrients like calcium, protein, phosphorus, zinc and vitamin A, making it a good incorporation into a balanced eating plan.
Cheese contains high amounts of calcium, a vital dietary component needed for overall good health. Calcium is one of the more common nutrients to be lacking in the American diet. According to government statistics, 9 out of 10 women and 6 out of 10 men fall short of daily calcium recommendations. Consuming proper amounts of calcium is not only important for keeping bones and teeth healthy and strong, it is also essential for the proper functioning of the heart and other body systems. Therefore, cheese could be one avenue to ensuring that we get enough calcium in our diets to maintain good health.
Salt plays an important role in the cheese making process, controlling the moisture, texture, taste, functionality and food safety of the final product. Currently, cheese contributes about 8% of the sodium intake within the U.S. Because salt plays such a central role, it cannot be completely eliminated. However, if you are looking to lower the amount of sodium in your diet, opt for softer, less-aged cheeses such as Swiss, Ricotta, Parmesan and Monterey Jack, which require less than others.
Cheese contains relatively high amounts of dietary protein, which is essential in helping to maintain and promote new muscle and cell growth, as well as tissue repair and immune function. For the best advantage when supplementing your protein intake, opt for cheese that is made with low or nonfat milk. These contain less fat and calories while still providing you with a good source of protein.
An important caveat to keep in mind when looking at the nutrition of cheese is the amount of fat that it contains. While this varies between the different types, almost all cheeses contain higher amounts of saturated fats. Over the years, saturated fat - found in meats, eggs, cheese, butter and whole milk - was considered to be one of the primary causes of heart disease. However, recent research has shown that saturated fat has a minimal impact on heart disease risk, shifting the "saturated fat is bad" paradigm and taking some of the guilt out of cheese consumption.
Despite the fact that saturated fat is now less of a concern, calories still matter. Though there are slight variations between the different kinds of cheese, in general it contains about 100 calories per ounce. Therefore, while cheese is a decent source of protein and other micronutrients, it should still be eaten in moderation. To reduce calories, you can either grate or sprinkle harder cheeses over your dishes, or use small amounts of the more flavorful cheeses to boost flavor without needed too much.
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that those over the age of nine consume at least 3 servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy products each day. One serving of cheese is about one and one-half ounces of hard cheeses, one-third cup grated cheeses and two ounces for processed cheeses. Despite its merits, when slathered on pizza, nachos or stacked on crackers, cheese loses most of its natural health benefits. However, if consumed in moderation, cheese can be incorporated into any healthy diet.
**Sources: National Dairy Council
Emily DeLacey MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and currently working in Jamaica as a HIV/ AIDS Prevention Specialist. She attended Central Washington University for her Bachelor's Degree in Science and Dietetics and continued on after her internship to Kent State University for her Master's Degree in Science and Nutrition, with a focus on public health and advocacy. She served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi 2012-2014 working as a Community Health Advisor in a rural village, immersing in the joys of life without electricity or running water. She has been to 20+ countries and 47 of the 50 states in the US. Traveling, adventuring and experiencing new cultures has made her a passionate advocate for the equality of nutrition and wellness for all people.