Americans are eating record amounts of cheese—10.6 billion pounds were produced in the U.S. in 2011, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. Cheese has merits, including its bone-building calcium. But the way we usually eat it—slathered on pizza, poured over nachos, stacked on crackers—cancels out any health benefits. After all, cheese is high in calories (about 100 per ounce, on average) and fat (6 to 9 grams per ounce, most of which is saturated), and it often contains a lot of sodium. Still, small amounts can fit into most people’s diets. Here's what you need to know.
Like all dairy foods, cheese provides calcium and protein, as well as some vitamin A, B12, riboflavin, zinc and phosphorus. And it’s a source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fat that may have anti-cancer, weight-reducing, and heart-protective effects. But you’d have to eat a lot of cheese to get meaningful amounts of CLA, which means you’d also get a lot of unhealthy saturated fat and calories. Low-fat cheese contains less CLA; nonfat cheese contains none.
It’s no replacement for your toothbrush, but cheese may help prevent cavities. In a small study from Turkey in 2008, published in the journal Caries, people who ate cheese (just 1/3 ounce) after rinsing with a sugar solution had a rapid decrease in acidity, which lowers the risk of cavities. Older studies have found a similar protective acid-buffering effect.
Whether dairy foods, including cheese, help in weight control is controversial. A 2009 study in Nutrition & Metabolism, funded by the National Dairy Council, suggests that cheese and other dairy foods may help prevent weight gain after dieting; another study found that regular cheese eaters gained less weight over time than those who ate cheese less often. But other studies, including one from Johns Hopkins in 2008, have found that people who eat more cheese tend to be more overweight.
Whether cheese has an effect, good or bad, on cancer risk is also debatable. A large Swedish study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition several years ago found a link between cheese (at least two ounces a day) and reduced risk of colorectal cancer in women. Other studies have not found this benefit. A few have even linked dairy products, including cheese, to increased prostate and ovarian cancer—though others have found no such link.
Cheese may not be especially good for your heart—but some research suggests that it may not be so bad for it either, at least when it’s part of an overall healthy diet. In fact, the Mediterranean diet, which is associated with many health benefits including a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease, allows for moderate amounts of cheese. And dairy foods, including cheese, are an important part of the anti-hypertension DASH diet.
Think of cheese as a flavor enhancer—a supporting player in a meal. A thin slice with fruit makes a nice dessert. An ounce or two of cheese, even daily, is reasonable—as long as you can afford the calories and your diet is not otherwise high in saturated fat.
Compare calories and fat on packaged cheeses. All cheeses have a lot, but some, such as Cheddar and Swiss, have more (110 to 125 calories and eight to nine grams fat per ounce) than others, such as soft goat cheese, feta, and mozzarella (75 to 85 calories and six grams fat per ounce).
Use strong or savory cheeses—they have more flavor, so you don’t need as much. Use small amounts of grated Parmesan or crumbled feta or blue cheese, for instance, in salads, soups, pastas and vegetable dishes.
Reduced-fat, low-fat and nonfat cheeses are available—and can be good choices if you eat more than an ounce a day, or if a recipe calls for large amounts of cheese. Many taste and even melt better than they used to.
Note that calcium levels vary greatly. Hard cheeses have about 200 milligrams per ounce (20 percent of the Daily Value). But calcium can range from 40 milligrams (in soft goat cheese) to 270 milligrams (in low-fat Swiss). Cottage cheese, eaten by the cup, not the ounce, is a fair source (140 milligrams per cup).
Sodium content typically ranges from about 100 to 300 milligrams an ounce, but some cheeses have more—as much as 500 milligrams in processed cheese. Others, such as Swiss and Gruyère, have less. Some “low-sodium” cheeses have as little as five milligrams of sodium per ounce.
Regular cream cheese, which is very high in fat (10 grams per ounce), is a meager source of calcium (just 22 milligrams per ounce) and has negligible protein. Look for reduced-fat (sometimes called Neufchatel cheese or “1/3 less fat” cream cheese), low-fat (light) or nonfat versions. Farmer cheese, which is low in fat, is a good alternative.