Cheese is everywhere.
You can enjoy it melted on pizza, sliced for a sandwich, or sprinkled over a salad. But cheese also has a bad rap as a high-fat food.
And while it may be true that cheese contains a high amount of fat, it can provide some surprising health benefits.
Cheese is what’s known as a whole food: a food as close to its natural form as possible, with minimal to no processing.
The nutrition you get from cheese can vary a lot depending on what kind of cheese you eat — and how much. Steer clear of highly processed kinds, as they can contain additives and high levels of sodium.
Beneficial nutrients present in cheese include:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin D
One ounce (28 grams) of American cheese contains:
- 104 calories
- 5 grams of protein
- 9 grams of fat (5 grams saturated)
- 1 gram of carbohydrates
- 0 grams of fiber
- 0.6 grams of sugar
- 293 milligrams of calcium
- 468 milligrams of sodium
An ounce of Brie cheese, on the other hand, contains:
- 95 calories
- 0 gram of carbohydrates
- 8 grams of fat
- 6 grams of protein
- 150 milligrams of calcium
- 180 milligrams of sodium
And in an ounce of Feta cheese:
- 75 calories
- 1 gram of carbohydrates
- 6 grams of fat
- 5 grams of protein
- 140 milligrams of calcium
- 323 milligrams of sodium
The key to finding healthier cheeses is reading the label.
Harder cheeses tend to be higher in sodium, and nutrient content can vary from brand to brand. Avoid products that are cheese-flavored and opt for minimally processed varieties instead. When in doubt, always check the packaging.
Potential Health Benefits of Cheese
Cheese made from the milk of animals that are raised 100% grass-fed contains omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin K2, a nutrient your body uses to clot blood. Research has shown that dairy products like cheese can help keep you from getting cavities in your teeth.
Other health benefits of cheese include:
Bone and muscle health. The calcium and protein in cheese are great for building strong bones and muscle. Whey protein, the same type of protein used in many powdered muscle-building supplements, is plentiful in cheese.
Since cheese is made from milk, it’s also packed with calcium. Calcium can help developing bones grow stronger and prevent osteoporosis as we age. Vitamins A, D, K, and zinc in cheese are also thought to contribute to bone health.
Less inflammation. Dairy fats in cheese contain conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may help ease inflammation and may even help prevent heart disease and obesity. Studies show certain full-fat dairy products can be healthy when eaten in moderation.
Lower blood pressure. The high levels of calcium in dairy products like cheese can help reduce blood pressure. Lower-fat, low-sodium cheeses, eaten in moderation as part of a healthy diet, can help lower blood pressure. Try cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, parmesan, feta, or goat cheese.
Blood vessel protection. Research shows cheese could be a good source of glutathione, an antioxidant that helps maintain brain health.
This antioxidant property may also help blood vessels work better. A 2016 study showed that the blood vessels of participants who ate cheese were healthier than those who ate pretzels or soy cheese.
Gut health. Fermented foods like cheese and yogurt contain probiotic bacteria. Some small studies have shown healthy gut bacteria can have to keep cholesterol levels healthy.
Potential Risks of Cheese
Some people are allergic to a protein in cheese called casein. An allergic reaction to this substance can cause inflammation throughout the body, rashes, acne, headaches, and sinus congestion.
If your body can’t digest lactose, the sugar that’s naturally in cheese, this can also trigger a reaction. Symptoms of lactose intolerance can include bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea.
If you’ve never been tested for these sensitivities, talk with your doctor or a dietitian about them.
Finally, while the saturated fats in cheese can be beneficial in small amounts, diets high in saturated fats and sodium have been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Since cheese has higher amounts of saturated fat and sodium, it’s best to eat it in moderation.
There are more and more alternatives to cheese popping up. If you're lactose intolerant, or if you’re a vegan, cheese made from soy, almonds, or cashews can be an alternative. This is often referred to as “vegan cheese.” But you may need to be wary of things like added salt if you eat those.
Fat-free cheese is a possible alternative if you're worried about how much fat you're taking in. In fact, some research suggests that low-fat cheeses can aid in weight loss because your body burns more fat when it gets enough calcium.
What Makes Cheese Vegetarian- or Vegan-Friendly?
While vegans don’t eat products that come from animals, some vegetarians (lacto-vegetarians) eat dairy products including cheese and cow’s milk. Otherwise, they avoid animals or other products that come from animals.
But not all dairy products are vegetarian-friendly.
Certain types of cheeses are made with animal rennet, a mixture of enzymes that causes dairy to curdle and clump together. The active ingredient in rennet is chymosin (also called rennin) and it’s extracted from a calf’s stomach lining. This is often referred to as calf rennet.
When you add rennet to milk during the cheesemaking process, it helps break down casein proteins that keep it in liquid form. That causes the milk to curdle (or clot). Cheesemakers separate the curds from the liquid (whey) and turn the curds into cheese. Commonly used cheeses like Parmesan, Grana Padano, and Gorgonzola contain calf rennet.
Not all cheeses contain calf rennet. Clotting enzymes can also be found in certain fungi, plants, and genetically modified microbes.
Some cheeses like paneer and cottage cheese don’t contain any form of rennet. Instead, they’re usually made using vegetable-based acids that cause curdling like lemon juice or vinegar.
If the cheese is made using non-dairy milk like soy, almond, or cashew, that makes it vegan-friendly. Some companies that make oat milk are beginning to make cream cheese-like spreads and non-dairy mozzarella.
Types of Rennet
The kinds of rennet are:
Calf rennet. This is extracted from the lining of a calf’s fourth stomach, the abomasum. It's most commonly used in traditional cheesemaking.
But because of dietary restrictions based on religion or lifestyle and food safety issues, calf rennet is found in only about 5% of cheeses in the U.S. That means more than 9 out of 10 cheeses use other types of rennets or clotting agents to make cheese.
Microbial rennet. This type of coagulating agent is made from microorganisms like fungi, mold, or yeast. The two common fungi that produce this rennet are Endothia (Cryphonectria parasitica) and certain mucors (rhizomucor fungi).
Fermentation-produced chymosin. This is extracted from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that cause clotting. Experts make this by taking the gene that produces chymosin in calves’ stomach lining and embedding it into a microbe. This then produces 100% chymosin, which is used in the cheesemaking process.
Vegetable rennet. Certain plants like figs, nettles, and thistles contain coagulating agents that can be used to break down milk proteins to make cheese.
How to Spot Cheeses With Animal By-products
When you’re shopping for cheese, you should check the ingredient labels to see if it fits your dietary needs.
Check to see:
- If it says “enzymes.” That often means animal rennet. This might not be suitable for vegans or vegetarians.
- If it mentions “vegetable rennet.” That’s usually suitable for vegetarians.
- If the cheese is made from plant-based sources. You might see some with soy or nuts.
- If you see “lipase” on the ingredient list, it’s usually an animal-based enzyme. If it’s not, it’ll clearly mention otherwise.
- If there are vegan claims like the "Certified Vegan" logo from the Vegan Awareness Foundation.