Cheese has gotten a bad rap for a LONG time. When dogmatic beliefs meets the evidence about cheese, however, the bad rap may not be deserved. Can aged cheese, then, actually be GOOD for you? Controversial!
Let’s explore a little of that controversy and history of this savory snack.
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.
Cheese opponents claim that ALL cheeses can:
- Cause heart disease
- Increase inflammation
- Cause methane emissions to increase
- Be too high in sodium
- Have too much saturated fat
Cheese proponents claim that cheese is:
- A mineral-rich food
- A good protein source
- Probiotic-rich food
- Supports sustainable agriculture
- Supports biodiversity
I like to think that my view on the topic is neutral, so I want to share with you a few facts that may change your mind about the dogmatic teachings about this savory dairy product we know as cheese.
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. The Paleolithic period of time falls about 10,000 years ago, where humans primarily ate foods derived from nature. Believe what you want about Paleo diet trends: Goat cheese is thought to have first been eaten at least 7,500 years ago.
Close enough, perhaps, to the Paleo period, to fit. I will present reasons why aged cheese may be worth adding to your diet, regardless of the Paleo movement.
How is Aged Cheese Made?
The steps in aged cheese-making are very secretive and 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 the curds are used to make both fresh and aged cheese.
The curds used in cheese making are very rich in proteins and amino acids. Fresh cheeses become cottage cheese or fresh mozzarella, which are both very mild in taste and high in moisture.
American cheese is made from milk fat, whey protein, flavorings, other fats. American cheese or processed cheeses are less than 50% aged cheese.
Aging 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.
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 or cheese culture. This allows for unique flavors to develop. Temperature, humidity, mold, and bacteria are important factors in the aging or ripening.
While it may seem a bit of a mystery, and it is, the aging process also helps to make a safe, healthy, unique, and delicious aged cheese.
Types of Cheeses
According to Cheese Web, there are 7 types of cheese categories. They are:
- Fresh cheese
- ricotta, cottage cheese, and mozzerella
- Aged-fresh cheese
- These are fresh cheeses from goats milk that are allowed to form a thin rind, such as ricotta and mozzerella
- 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 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 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.
Dairy Sensitivity is a Big Deal
Should you avoid dairy, and therefore aged cheeses?
I can’t talk about cheese without talking about food allergies and sensitivities. Dairy sensitivity is a common problem. Dairy is at the top of the list of common food intolerance and allergies.
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, so they 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. Different proteins are present in goat and sheep milk. Or try Jersey cow’s milk cheeses.
The answer may be different for you, but here are 8 reasons why aged cheese may benefit your health.
8 Health Benefits of Aged Cheeses
1. Fermented Cheese is Healthy
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 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 for Weight Loss
Postmenopausal women who ate aged cheeses had lower belly fat amounts than those who didn’t eat aged cheeses in a long-term study.
Further, full-fat milk products were related to lower amounts of obesity in young Latino children.
Adding to the mounting evidence, a recent study of 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 [R].
It appears the aging process may be the important factor for staying leaner when eating cheese.
2. 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 showed that eating cheese was related to better bone density in men, but not women [R].
Dairy may be more protective for bone health in people who supplement their diets with vitamin D3 [R].
4. There are Probiotics in Aged Cheese
Aged cheeses are a great way to get probiotics. These probiotics in aged cheese can set up residence in the digestive tract [R]. This is an important feature of an effective probiotic.
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 probiotics. The possible number and amount of probiotics of various cheeses are seemingly endless.
5. 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. Remember my dreams?
We are drawn to cheeses for these reasons. Among these are savory tastes, along with the creamy mouth-feel that fats bring.
The bacteria and enzymes present in aged cheeses break down proteins and fats. This makes unique and flavorful substances.
The fermentation process also makes acid, which adds flavor complexity.
6. Cheese is Nutritious
Nutrition content of cheese is high, especially if it is organic cheese. It has more omega 3 fats and CLA than conventional cheeses [R].
Full-fat cheese contains vitamin K2, an important nutrient for heart and bone health. Natto still beats it for vitamin K2 content, but it’s much harder to find [R].
Cheese is also a great source of protein, amino acids, medium chain fats (healthier saturated fats), and omega-3 fats. It has more healthy fats if made from grass-fed cows.
Other vitamins and minerals present in aged cheeses: [R]
- Vitamin A
- Small amounts of vitamin D
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- Vitamin B12
- CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a potential cancer-fighter and metabolism booster
7. Aged Raw Milk Cheeses have other Beneficial Substances
These include anti-microbial compounds called immunoglobulins, which may help immunity [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].
8. 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]. 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. I’m talking about cheeses derived from animals raised in a regenerative way.
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 find a cheese that is from grass-fed animals and humanely raised a good bet. When in doubt, visit your farmer.
Buy specialty and artisan cheeses where the animal, whether goat, sheep or cow, was raised with care.
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. Sorry men.
Enjoy aged cheeses when it heightens your senses. The experience is as important as or more important than calories, saturated fat, or any other number you can throw in a column.
Are you on an MAOI medication? Make sure to avoid aged cheeses. Need to limit your sodium or tyramine? Limit cheese intake to smaller amounts.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body and is shared for educational purposes only. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes to your supplement regimen or lifestyle.
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.