Eating cheese makes us happy, but does it also make
us healthy? Nutrition expert and author Dr. Marion Nestle weighs in on our favorite food.
culture: There’s a lot of talk these days about “good” fat versus “bad” fat. Where does cheese fit into that discussion?
MN: In a word: moderation! Saturated fat—the kind found in dairy products—is so-called bad fat, the kind that raises blood cholesterol and increases the risk of heart disease. Cheese is right up there as a leading source of saturated fat in the diet, along with other dairy products and beef. How worried should you be about this? It depends on what the rest of your diet looks like, how active you are, your weight, your genetic inheritance, and whether or not you smoke cigarettes. If you maintain a healthy lifestyle and if heart disease doesn’t run in your family, the amount of cheese you eat isn’t nearly as critical as it might be for someone in the opposite health situation.
Cheese lovers can also take heart (pun intended) in the hopeful results of newly emerging research about CLA—conjugated linoleic acid—a natural trans fat found in cheese and other dairy products made from the milk of cows that have fed on grass. CLAs appear to behave more like good fats, helping to improve cholesterol and triglyceride profiles in the body and maybe doing all sorts of other positive things such as preventing cancer, enhancing immunity, and strengthening bones. When one nutritional component is said to do so much, however, I’m usually skeptical. But the research on CLA is promising—stay tuned for more of it.
In the meantime, I endorse moderation in cheese intake for most people. To practice that, it’s helpful to keep in mind that a hard, aged cheese without much moisture—a mature cheddar, for example—is likely to be one-third fat by weight; about two-thirds of that fat will be saturated. Softer cheeses retain more water and, therefore, proportionately less saturated fat and fewer calories. (Cottage cheese, it should be noted, is a special case; it is mostly protein and packs a mere 30 calories per ounce.) For most cheeses, figure that an ounce contains about 100 calories and eight grams of fat, five of them saturated.
As for low-fat cheeses, a reduced-fat cheddar cuts the saturated fat in half, and a low-fat muenster or skim-milk ricotta cuts calories and fat by one-third. But why bother? Their taste is not nearly as satisfying. I’d rather spend my daily allotment of saturated fat on cheese than anything else. I’ve learned to appreciate the value of small amounts—gratings, shavings, slivers, and light smears—not half pounds. That way, I don’t have to worry about whether the fats are bad or good.
culture: How does milk from different animals—cows, sheep, goats—compare nutritionally?
MN: Milk from any animal is designed inherently to meet the nutritional needs of its young. All types tend to be more concentrated than human milk, which is why babies should not be fed whole cow’s milk until their digestive systems are mature enough to handle it—usually at the age of one or two. Considering nutrient composition, cow’s and goat’s milk are only slightly different, goat’s milk being richer in calcium, vitamin B6, and niacin, while cow’s milk has much higher levels of vitamin B12 and folic acid. Sheep’s milk is another matter: it has a higher concentration of nearly everything, including protein, fat, carbohydrates, and micronutrients.
culture: When vegetarianism first hit the mainstream, much emphasis was placed on the idea of mixing dairy with legumes and/or grains to create “complementary” proteins. Does that recommendation still stand? Is it beneficial to eat cheese with other foods?
MN: Cheese is an animal product, so it provides nutrients unique to animal products (vitamin B12, for example) but lacks those unique to plant foods (like vitamin C). Its protein composition is relatively complete, meaning that it contains the same amino acids that our bodies have—this is true of all foods, plant- or animal-based—but in proportions that are similar to ours. The amino acids in grains and legumes are also the same as those in our body proteins, though in different proportions, which is why the basic principles of nutrition (including moderation) and variety make sense. If you eat many different wholesome foods from various food groups, cheese among them, you really don’t have to worry about specific nutrients. Nature will do all the work.
Marion Nestle is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, and What to Eat, blogs at foodpolitics.com, and tweets at: @marionnestle.