Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on November 03, 2020
The Cottage Cheese Comeback

The Cottage Cheese Comeback

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It was the dairy queen until yogurt came along. At the peak of its popularity in the ‘70s, Americans scarfed down 5 pounds of the stuff per person per year. But as yogurt rose to fame on the wings of clever marketing, Americans soured on cottage cheese. Annual consumption dropped to just 2 pounds per person. But this once-forgotten dairy product is back on the upswing. It would have to be: America produces about 700 million pounds of it a year. 

Just What Is Cottage Cheese?

Just What Is Cottage Cheese?

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Remember Little Miss Muffet eating her curds and whey? That was the makings of cottage cheese. It’s more like yogurt than cheddar or Swiss. You make it by adding acid or cultures to milk. That gives it a slightly tart flavor. Then lumpy curds form and leave behind a liquid called whey. The curds then get some salt and cream for flavor and texture. This fresh cheese isn’t aged like brie or gruyere. Its shelf life in your fridge is shorter than the lives of those others, too.

How Did It Get Its Name?

How Did It Get Its Name?

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Cottage cheese began as a kind of “cottage industry.” In the 1800s, people used this method to make fresh cheese at home with milk that had soured naturally or that was left over from making butter. The name likely comes from the type of homes they lived in -- cottages. During World War I, the U.S. Department of Agriculture pushed this cheese as a protein source in order to save meat for soldiers overseas. It’s thought to be the first commercially made American cheese.

Cottage Cheese’s Curd Appeal

Cottage Cheese’s Curd Appeal

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Those white lumps give this fresh cheese its distinct appearance. You can buy it in large-curd or small-curd varieties. The smaller nuggets are about a quarter inch in diameter. The big ones measure up to 3/8 of an inch. It’s the size of the knives used in cottage cheese production that determines the size of the curd. The nutrition profile is the same either way. It’s just a matter of personal preference or what your recipe requires.

A Protein Powerhouse

A Protein Powerhouse

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Here’s a surprise: Ounce for ounce, cottage cheese has about as much protein as protein-superstar Greek yogurt. A full cup has 23 grams compared with Greek yogurt’s 24. But, read labels because protein can vary slightly from brand to brand and variety to variety. For instance, large curd often has a gram or two more than small curd, and low-fat has slightly less than full-fat. Still, a serving will meet about half your daily protein needs. 

Cottage Cheese Satisfies

Cottage Cheese Satisfies

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Compared with an omelet (a dish with the same amount of protein), lowly cottage cheese is just as satisfying, according to a study in the journal Appetite. It does as good a job of squashing hunger pangs, too. Part of the reason could be the type of protein it has -- casein. Your body digests it more slowly than whey protein, which can leave you feeling full for longer.

Facts on Fat and Calories

Facts on Fat and Calories

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Like milk, cottage cheese comes in full-fat, low-fat, and fat-free. But, consider the trade-offs: Less fat means more artificial ingredients. That might not be worth the 50 or so calories you save. A cup of full-fat has about 220 calories. One percent has around 164. Research suggests that dairy fat doesn’t pose the heart threat that saturated fat in meat does. It could even help prevent type 2 diabetes. Plus, the richer version usually tastes better.

Beware of Added Ingredients

Beware of Added Ingredients

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Real cottage cheese has just four ingredients -- milk, culture or acid, cream, and salt. Both flavored and lower-fat versions have a wealth of other additives, like sweeteners, stabilizers, thickeners, and preservatives. If you’re trying to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which could be in the dairy cows’ feed, choose organic. But that doesn’t guarantee you’ll avoid additives. What’s the only way you can be sure what you’re going to get? Always read the label.

Good for Gut Health

Good for Gut Health

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There’s one new variety of cottage cheese that you might want to seek out: Those that have live and active cultures, similar to the ones in yogurt. Unlike yogurt, you don’t need cultures to make cottage cheese. But these probiotic bacteria can boost gut health, and they add to this snack’s good-for-you profile.

The Calcium Connection

The Calcium Connection

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Unlike some other dairy foods, cottage cheese is not at the very top of the list for calcium content. That’s because a lot of milk’s natural calcium ends up in the whey, not the curds. At about 125 mg per cup, it has a little less than half the calcium of 8 ounces of milk, but check the label to be sure. The amount of calcium varies with fat content.

Nutrient Hits and One Miss

Nutrient Hits and One Miss

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One cup of full-fat cottage cheese delivers 40% of your daily vitamin B12 needs. That’s important for nerve and blood cell health. It’s got about half a day’s phosphorus, which helps make energy and protect bones, and 40% of your daily selenium, for reproductive and thyroid health. You’ll also get other B vitamins, vitamin A, and even some K. But, it does have a lot of salt. Depending on the variety, one cup could eat up a third of your daily sodium max.

Bedtime Snack with Benefits

Bedtime Snack with Benefits

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A study involving active women in their 20s, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that eating a cup of cottage cheese about 30 to 60 minutes before sleep boosted metabolism, promoted muscle recovery and repair from exercise, and had positive effects on overall health.

Go Sweet or Go Savory

Go Sweet or Go Savory

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Cottage cheese has a neutral taste profile, so you can sweeten or spice it up. Top a serving with fruit slices or drizzle on a fruit puree for a dessert-like treat. Add a scoop to a bowl of greens and sprinkle with your favorite herbs to turn a side dish into a light main course. Use it as a high-protein filling for omelets, crepes, or stuffed peppers.  

A Super Swap

A Super Swap

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Cottage cheese makes a yummy alternative to yogurt when you want less tang in the taste. Layer it into a parfait of oatmeal and nuts or add it to smoothies. It’s also a great way to trim calories in many pasta dishes -- use it instead of ricotta, for instance. Process until smooth in a blender and, voila, you have a sub for sour cream in dips and dressings. Enjoy!

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SOURCES:


UCDavis Health: “Health benefits of cottage cheese vs. yogurt: Are we missing something”?

Cornucopia Institute: “Weighing the Curds.”

USDA: “Dairy Products 2019 Summary (April 2020),” “Judging and Scoring Milk and Cheese,” “Specifications for Cottage Cheese and Dry Curd Cottage Cheese,” “Nutritive Value of Foods,” “Choose My Plate, Yogurt,” “Why is the amount of cottage cheese that is equivalent to 1 cup of dairy higher than other dairy products?” “ National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28,” “Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Vitamins and Minerals.”

Encyclopedia of Dairy Sciences: “Cheese, Acid- and Acid/Heat Coagulated Cheese.”

Consumer Reports: “Is Cottage Cheese Good for You?”

California Milk Advisory Board: “Cottage Cheese.”

University of North Dakota: “Protein.”

Appetite: “The satiating effects of eggs or cottage cheese are similar in healthy subjects despite differences in postprandial kinetics.”

Advances in Nutrition: “Effects of Full-Fat and Fermented Dairy Products on Cardiometabolic Disease: Food Is More Than the Sum of Its Parts.”

Ingredient Inspector: “Which Cottage Cheeses Are Closest to Homemade.”

University of Nebraska Lincoln Extension: “Calcium and Vitamin D.”

NIH Office of Dietary Supplements: “Vitamin B12,” “Phosphorus,” “Selenium.”

Current Developments in Nutrition: “Multiple Vitamin K Forms Exist in Dairy Foods.”

British Journal of Nutrition: “Pre-sleep protein in casein supplement or whole-food form has no impact on resting energy expenditure or hunger in women.”

Michigan State University Extension: “The Case for Cottage Cheese.”