Humans like to categorize foods as good or bad foods, but as it turns out, it is never that simple. We have different genes, exposures, thousands of different compounds in our diet that make it so that no single natural foods is either inherently good or bad. Here is what we hear about cheese from opponents and proponents.
- Cause heart disease
- Increase inflammation
- Cause methane emissions to increase
- Be too high in sodium
- Have too much saturated fat
- A mineral-rich food
- A good protein source
- Probiotic-rich food
- Supports sustainable agriculture
- Supports biodiversity
Here are some basic facts about cheese history, cheese making, types of cheeses, benefits of eating cheese, risks of eating cheeses, and more.
Does Cheese Fit our Ancestral Mold?
Many health experts turn to our ancestor’s eating patterns to determine if we should or should not eat certain foods. A point in time that is closely analyzed is the Paleolithic period. This period of time is when humans primarily ate foods derived from nature, and this was approximately 10,000 years ago. While we have no solid evidence to prove that a Paleo diet is what we should try to follow today, one point that we can all take from this time period that IS positive for sure is this: they ate NO heavily processed foods in Paleo times. Is a Paleo diet trendy? Perhaps it is, but we still can glean some important facts about how foods are likely meant to be eaten. After all, our genes have not allowed us to tolerate current westernized diets very well at all. How does cheese fit into our ancestor’s diets? Goat cheese is thought to have first been eaten at least 7,500 years ago. Close enough, perhaps, to the Paleo period, for most to think of it as a good food. Aged cheese may be worth adding to your diet, regardless of the Paleo diet movement.
How is Aged Cheese Made?
The steps in aged cheese-making are very precise. Here are the essential steps for making a good quality aged cheese.
A type of bacteria called Lactococcus lactis is added to milk, which helps curdle the milk and form lactic acid. This then separates the milk to form curds, which are used to produce cheese and whey. All cheese, aged or not, begins by separating the curds from the whey. Both the curds and whey are rich in proteins. The whey is used for making various protein powders and American cheese. The curds are used to make both fresh and aged cheese.
After separation from the whey, the curds are used in cheese making process. Curds are very rich in proteins and amino acids and protein clusters called casein. Fresh cheeses include cottage cheese or fresh mozzarella, which are both very mild in taste and high in moisture. They are not fermented, but can include culture and probiotic. American cheese, however, is not fresh cheese or aged cheese, exactly. It is made from milk fat, whey protein, flavorings, and other fats. American cheese or processed cheeses are less than 50% aged cheese.
Aged cheese making
The types of cheese made by aging dairy curds is seemingly endless. Sheep milk, goat milk, cow’s milk, buffalo milk, and camel milk can all be used in the cheese-making process. Aged cheeses are stored, for a period of time, often 6 months or more. The aging process of cheese is also known as fermentation. They are then stored carefully. Storage and aging process of cheeses is always under very controlled conditions. The cheese variety will depend on the unique conditions and inoculations, like probiotics (bacteria or mold) or cheese culture. This allows for unique flavors to develop. Temperature, humidity, mold, and bacteria are important factors in the aging or ripening. Cheese making is a bit of a mystery because it somewhat proprietary. Never fear! Quality controls are in place to create a safe, healthy, unique, and delicious aged cheese.
Types of Cheeses
There are over a thousand types of cheese on the market today. According to Cheese Web, there are 7 types of cheese categories. They are:
- Fresh cheese
- Ricotta, Cottage cheese, and Mozzarella
- Aged-fresh cheese
- These are fresh cheeses from goats milk that are allowed to form a thin rind, such as ricotta and mozzarella
- Soft white rind
- Camembert, Bri, Chevre
- These are made with penicillin candidum and develop a white rind
- Camembert, Bri, Chevre
- Semi soft
- Edam, Munster, Taleggio
- These are rubbery cheeses with a thin rind, often fermented with bacteria that result in an orange rind
- Edam, Munster, Taleggio
- Cheddar, Pecorino Romano, Parmesan, Gruyere
- Pressed for a long time to remove moisture and then usually aged for a long period of time
- Cheddar, Pecorino Romano, Parmesan, Gruyere
- Stilton, Gorgonzola, Roquefort
- Blue penicillium mold is added into the milk before separating the curds and whey and forms the characteristic blue color of the cheeses
- Stilton, Gorgonzola, Roquefort
- Any aged cheese with flavor additives, such as chives, wine, truffles, spices, and more.
Did you know?
Cheddar cheese originated in a village named Cheddar in England? The village of Cheddar contains several caves, which provide the ideal conditions for making cheddar’s notorious taste. Brie is also named after the region where it originated in France. It is a soft cow’s-milk cheese that must be warmed to room temperature to obtain the best flavor. Blue Stilton cheese is made exclusively in the three counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire from local milk. At peak times the milk may be obtained from all of England and Wales.
13 Health Benefits of Aged Cheeses
1. Aged Cheese is Fermented
Fermentation is a hot area in health research right now. We are really going back to our ancestral roots with this one. Cheeses aged over 60 days can be legally made from raw milk. This raw milk gives the cheese a boon for the fermentation process. Did you know that Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made only from raw milk?
Fermented foods reduce chronic illness
Fermented foods are getting press because they may help treat chronic illnesses. These include digestive disorders, mood disorders, diabetes, obesity, and autoimmune diseases. You can identify fermentation by taste: it’s often tangy and complex in flavor. Tip: Watch out for giant, factory-made cheeses. They may not have the raw milk advantage during the cheese-making process.
2. Aged Cheese Helps with Weight Loss
While it may seem counter-intuitive because of cheese’s fat content, cheese may actually help you be lean. Here is the evidence we have of that:
- Postmenopausal women who ate aged cheeses had lower belly fat amounts than those who didn’t eat aged cheeses in a long-term study.
- Full-fat milk products were related to lower amounts of obesity in young Latino children.
- Healthy Irish adults found that total dairy intake was related to lower body mass index, body fat, and better waistlines [R].
However, people eating non-aged cheeses gained weight in another study. Aged cheeses did not appear to make people gain weight in this same study[R]. Tip: It appears the aging process may be the important factor for staying leaner when eating cheese.
3. Aged Cheese May Help Your Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is a major risk factor for diseases, including heart disease and stroke. Even though cheese contains salt, it may have a neutral and even beneficial effect on blood pressure. In fact, dairy consumption consistently is related to reduced blood pressure [R].
How does cheese reduce blood pressure?
A compound in cheese called lactotripeptides helps to reduce blood pressure by acting to reduce a compound in the body called angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE). This is the action of many blood pressure medications as well. Dairy proteins may also make opiate-like compounds in the body that further reduce blood pressure.
Cheese and blood pressure precautions
Be aware that a drug called MAOI inhibitors affect our ability to metabolize a nutrient called tyrosine. Avoid aged cheese if you take MAOI medications because it can cause a hypertensive crisis [R]. Tip: Cheese may help support blood pressure, but eating foods with cheese that are otherwise processed is not a good idea. These processed foods include pizza, burgers, nachos, etc. Enjoy cheese along with fresh vegetables and fruits for best health.
5. Cheese does NOT increase cholesterol
While the main premise and controversy surrounding cheese is that it raises cholesterol, no research has shown this to be true. In fact, clinical trials of cheese supplementation find that cheese is neutral on cholesterol numbers or may even lower harmful cholesterol numbers and metabolic risks [R]. Total cholesterol and triglyceride numbers were, in fact, significantly lower among a group of people given Gouda cheese versus those limiting cheese!
Pecorino cheese improves cholesterol
Another rigorous clinical crossover study of 58 people found that Pecorino cheese did not raise LDL cholesterol and resulted in improved glucose and HDL levels relative to the placebo group [R]. Pecorino is a sheep milk cheese.
High amounts of cheese STILL doesn’t raise cholesterol
Yet another randomized crossover study found that eating LARGE amounts of cheese did not increase LDL cholesterol and improved cholesterol compared to a butter rich diet [R]. Tip: It’s time to put the saturated fat theories about cheese to rest because the research disproves it.
5. Cheese Helps Fight Cavities
Most research points to the benefits of cheese as a food that can help prevent cavities. This is especially true if you eat cheese at the end of a meal. How does cheese protect teeth? It has been shown in research to protect the tooth enamel by [R]:
- Increasing saliva
- Decreasing harmful bacteria in the mouth
- Dilutes harmful sugars in the mouth
- Provides calcium and phosphorus, which protect the enamel
- Proteins in cheese protect tooth enamel
By supporting the overall pH balance, saliva, and microbiome in the mouth, aged cheese may help improve your dental health.
6. Cheese Increases Antioxidants
The body’s primary antioxidant is called glutathione. High glutathione levels in the body and in the brain are protective against toxins, inflammation, and more [R].
Dairy increases glutathione
Dairy intake, including aged cheese, is related to higher glutathione levels in the blood and in the brain [R]. Dairy more so than any food appears to be related to the highest level of glutathione in the brain! Why does dairy increase glutathione? No one fully knows, but it is likely because dairy contains calcium and riboflavin, which help the body produce it. Cheese also contains cysteine, an amino acid that helps the body make glutathione.
7. Aged Cheese May Reduce Aging
It may sound like an oxymoron that eating aged foods may reduce aging in your body, but it is true. Aged cheeses, especially sharp cheddar are rich in polyamines, including putrescine, spermidine, and spermine. Polyamines are essential compounds found in every cell in our bodies. Polyamines help regulate [R]:
- cell growth
- cell spread
- regulation of inflammation
- stickiness or glycation of proteins in the body
The most researched of the polyamines is called spermidine. This compound helps support mitochondrial function, has anti-inflammatory properties, and prevents stem cell senescence or aging of cells [R]. Spermidine sources are variable depending on the aging process, but cheddar cheese has the highest spermidine content of any known food. Aged cheese contains compounds called polyamines in higher concentration that any foods out there. Tip: Polyamines are undoubtedly why aged cheese stands out as a healthy food option.
8. Aged Cheeses may Help Protect your Bones
A long-term study evaluated the effects of dairy on bone health. This study found that postmenopausal women who ate fermented dairy products had better bone size than those who did not eat fermented dairy. This study was observational, so it does not necessarily mean cause and effect [R]. Other research shows that eating cheese is related to better bone density in men, but not women [R]. Part of the cofactors for bone and mineral health is vitamin D3, and most people aren’t getting enough.
Dairy works better for bone health with supplemental vitamin D3
Dairy may be more protective for bone health in people who supplement their diets with vitamin D3 [R]. Tip: Make sure to get enough vitamin D3 by checking your blood level and supplementing as needed. Learn more about the importance of vitamin D3 here.
9. There are Probiotics in Aged Cheese
Aged cheeses are a great way to get probiotics. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help our health by supporting immune balance, brain function, digestive function, and may even help with heart health. It is important to eat probiotic-rich foods.
Cheese creates a healthier microbiome
An issue with probiotics is whether or not they actually stay around, or set up residence, to support health. The good news about aged cheese is that probiotics from the cheese can set up residence in the digestive tract [R]. This is an important feature of an effective probiotic.
The amount of probiotic variety in cheese is high
The probiotics in cheeses can be super complex too. I mean that they are complex in a good way. In fact, over 300 strains of bacteria were found in 45 samples of cheeses [R]. Fermentation of various cheeses brings about unique probiotic strains. The possible number and amount of probiotics of various cheeses are seemingly endless.
10. Aged Cheese Flavors Foods
Aged cheeses have complex and unique flavors. Flavor makes food a lot more exciting. Where the aged cheese is present, a distinctive and surreal quality abounds. We are drawn to cheeses for these reasons.
Satisfying and Savory
Humans are drawn to cheese because of the complex, savory tastes. Cheese also creates a satisfying, creamy texture due to the complex fats it brings. The bacteria and enzymes present in aged cheeses helps to break down proteins and fats. This makes unique and flavorful substances. The fermentation process also makes acid, which adds flavor complexity to this intensely umami food.
11. Cheese is Nutritious
The nutrition content of cheese is high, especially if it is organic cheese. Organic cheese has more omega 3 fats and a beneficial type of fat called conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, than conventional cheeses [R].
Fat soluble vitamins
Full-fat cheeses also contains vitamin K2, a fat soluble vitamin that is important nutrient for heart and bone health. Natto still beats it for vitamin K2 content, but it’s much harder to find in the United States [R].
Complex proteins and fats
Cheese is also a great source of protein, amino acids, medium chain triglycerides (MCT), such as caprilic and lauric acid, and omega-3 fats. Of note, MCT’s do NOT have the negative effects of other kinds of saturated fats and is comparable to olive oil for cholesterol and other metabolic measures of health [R]. Aged cheese has more healthy fats if it is made from grass-fed cows.
A variety of vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are present in aged cheeses and include per slice or 21 grams [R]
- Calcium 149 mg 14% DV
- Zinc 0.8 mg 8% DV
- Phosphorus 96 mg 14% DV
- Vitamin A 69 ug 8% DV
- Choline 3.5 mg <1% DV
- Small amounts of:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- Vitamin B12
- CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a potential cancer-fighter and metabolism booster
12. Aged Raw Milk Cheeses have other Beneficial Substances
Cheese is complex due to the aging process, and contains many other beneficial substances for health. These include:
- Anti-microbial compounds called immunoglobulins, which may help immunity [R].
- Lactic acid, which inhibits the growth of listeria, a harmful microbe [R].
- Enzymes thought to be good for digestion and blood pressure [R].
- Growth factors are present in cheese, which may help protect the digestive tract [R].
- Cheese contains whey and amino acids, which may help protect the gut lining [R].
With the complexity that aged cheese brings, I cringe when I read about the simplistic headings and diagrams of saturated fats. This is only one of infinite compounds in cheese.
13. Aged Cheese; Can it be Good for the Environment?
Can some cheeses be good for the environment? With food, I always try to remember the impact on the ecosystem as a whole, not just a carbon or methane number. Holistically managed dairy farming is also known as regenerative farming [R].
What is regenerative farming?
This type of farming uses sheep, cows, or goats to help restore soils. This also can be good for water systems and more. We are faced with daily food recalls due to modern high-tech agricultural practices. Regenerative farming practices in dairy farms may save food waste and environmental costs. Your choice matters. I’m not talking about any buying any old cheese on the shelf. Sustainable cheeses are derived from animals that are raised in a regenerative way. Sheep, goats, and cows can support the biodiversity that is necessary in the soil and creates the humus that sustains healthy soils.
Better than organic?
Regenerative is the new organic. It may be better than organic in countless ways because it focuses on replenishing the soil as well as avoiding chemical use. You might want to try to find a cheese that is from grass-fed animals and humanely raise: this is a good bet for sustainable agriculture. When in doubt, visit your farmer. Buy specialty and artisan cheeses where the animal, whether goat, sheep or cow, was raised with care. Sustainable agriculture begins with eating foods close to home.
Risks of Eating Cheese
Some people need to use caution when eating cheese. Be aware of the following when considering eating aged cheeses:
This includes people who are sensitive to tyramine, such as people with migraines or people on certain kinds of medications.
Dairy sensitivity and dairy allergy
People with casein allergy, whey allergy, dairy sensitivity, or lactose sensitivity should also be careful about eating cheeses. Some people need to reduce their intake while some people need to completely eliminate dairy.
In some people, cheese can be constipating or cause digestive imbalance.
There is some concern that dairy sensitivity or allergy can increase symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis [R].
Are you on an MAOI medication? Make sure to avoid aged cheeses.
Low sodium diets
Limit cheese intake to smaller amounts; you still can have cheese on a low sodium diet; many pieces of bread have more sodium than a slice of cheese!
The lowest sodium aged cheeses are:
Swiss, Brick, Chevre, and Emmental
Dairy Sensitivity is a Big Deal
Should you avoid dairy, and therefore avoid aged cheeses? I can’t talk about cheese without talking about food allergies and sensitivities. Dairy sensitivity is a common problem.
Dairy allergy and intolerance prevalence
Dairy is at the top of the list of common food intolerance and allergies. According to the National Institutes of Health, over 60 percent of people have lactose intolerance or issues eating dairy [R]. This dairy intolerance can even show up in the body as eczema. Before you decide whether or not to eat cheese, know that cheeses have most lactose removed. That means that cheeses tend to be better tolerated than many dairy products.
My Dairy Elimination Experience
A few years ago, I eliminated dairy and other big food sensitivities for 3 weeks. I highly recommend trying this if you suspect you have food sensitivities. I began dreaming of cheese, however. No really. I dreamed of cheese day and night, and it was my only fantasy. I’m sorry to all you men out there. I thought I would miss warm bread from the oven, but no. Cheese had my number.
I craved it so much; could it actually be good for me? Could my body really need it? Adding dairy back was rocky, but I found that I was tolerant of cheese and thrived on many kinds out there. An important note: if you don’t tolerate cow’s milk cheeses, you may be ok with goat or sheep.
Slowly introduce small amounts of goat or sheep milk cheeses to see how you feel. Different proteins are present in goat and sheep milk, such as A2 casein. Or try Jersey cow’s milk cheeses, which may be higher in A2 casein, a better tolerated protein. The answer to dairy may be different for you than for me. We are all biochemically unique.
Vegan Cheeses are a Good Alternative
A high quality vegan cheese can be a great substitute for dairy cheeses. Recently, the taste and quality of vegan cheeses has gone up exponentially. Many people benefit from getting more plant-based foods into their diet.
Is vegan cheese healthy?
As with anything, the benefits of vegan cheese depend on the aging process and the quality of the ingredients going in. Many vegan cheeses are highly processed. Others are made with care and the skill of aged dairy cheeses.
Vegan cheese brands I like:
My favorite vegan cheese by far is Called Plant Perks. This vegan cheese is made in Missoula, Montana. It contains many fermented ingredients, which I love! Plant Perks cheese has the complex flavor of aged cheese, is smooth, creamy, and decadent. I am embarrassed to say that I ate a whole container in one sitting because it was SO delicious. Other nice vegan cheese options include making your own! You can make your own plant-based Camembert cheese. The recipe is here. I also enjoy the taste of Wayfare cheeses, but it isn’t quite as healthy as the Plant Perks cheese.
Fermentation Reading and Gear
My favorite fermented food of all time is not from dairy at all. It is sauerkraut. While cheese can be an important part of the diet, it should not serve as the ONLY fermented food in your daily routine.
How to Ferment
Learn how to get started with fermentation in this guide called Fermented Vegetables.
Sauerkraut and Kombucha kits
You can get a sauerkraut kit here as well. My second favorite fermented food is kombucha, which is a fermented tea. You can make your own with this kit. Even novices can make cheese. Here is a kit to make Camembert and Brie cheeses.
How to Enjoy Cheeses
Savor aged cheeses like you might savor a good wine or book. Warm them up to room temperature. Get some candlelight going or enjoy after a nice stroll in the crisp fall air. Enjoy aged cheeses when it heightens your senses and pair it with fresh fruits and vegetables. Consider trying vegan cheeses for a new taste and flavor experience that can be quite delicious too.
Food experience is important to health
The experience is as important as or more important than calories, saturated fat, or any other number you can throw in a column. If you enjoy a food, you are more likely to feel better, absorb more nutrients, and feel satisfied. Cheese can play a big role in food enjoyment!
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Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 20 years, has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. Has researched supplements and plants as medicine throughout her career. Loves helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.