Cheese offers nutritional benefits, less lactose than you might expect

Cheese offers nutritional benefits, less lactose than you might expect

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The cheese is rich and creamy, and it’s irresistible on a cracker, combined with selected fresh fruit or sprinkled over a bowl of chili. Americans really like it. Per capita consumption is 40 pounds per year, or just over 1.5 ounces per day.

But when people talk about their penchant for cheese, it’s often in a guilty way, as in, “Cheese is my weakness.”

“Cheese is packed with nutrients like protein, calcium and phosphorus and can serve a healthy purpose in the diet,” says Lisa Young, assistant professor of nutrition at New York University. Research shows that even full-fat cheese won’t necessarily make you fat or cause a heart attack. Cheese does not appear to increase or decrease the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and some studies suggest that it may even be protective.

Good bacteria, less risk from saturated fat

It’s easy to see why people might be conflicted about cheese. For years, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines said it was best to eat low-fat dairy products because full-fat dairy products, such as full-fat cheese, saturated fat, which can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol, a known risk factor for heart disease. Cheese is also blamed for weight gain and digestive problems such as bloating. However, it turns out that cheese may have been misunderstood.

Yes, it’s high in calories: some varieties have 100 calories or more per ounce. And it is rich in saturated fat. So why is it okay for most people to eat it? “Cheese is about more than saturated fat content,” says Emma Feeney, an assistant professor at University College Dublin’s Institute of Food and Health who studies the health effects of cheese.

The old school of thought about nutrition focused on individual nutrients—such as fat or protein—that promote or prevent disease. It’s not clear whether this is the wrong approach, but nutritionists are now putting more emphasis on the whole food and how its structure, nutrients, enzymes and other components interact.

When milk is turned into cheese, the process changes the way the nutrients and other components in it are chemically arranged. This affects the way the body digests and processes it, which can lead to health effects that differ from those of consuming the same nutrients in another form, such as butter.

In 2018, Feeney led for six weeks Clinical trial in which 164 people ate an equal amount of dairy fat in either butter or cheese form and then switched over the course of the study. “We found that the saturated fat in cheese did not raise LDL cholesterol to the same extent as butter,” she says.

Experts have different theories about why the saturated fat in cheese is less harmful. “Some studies show that the mineral content of cheese, particularly calcium, can bind with fatty acids in the gut and flush them out of the body,” says Feeney. Other studies show that fatty acids called sphingolipids in cheese can increase the activity of genes that help break down cholesterol in the body.

When cheese is made, it also gets some useful compounds. “Vitamin K can occur during the fermentation process,” says Sarah Booth, director of the Vitamin K Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Center for Human Nutrition Research at Tufts University in Boston. The vitamin is important for blood clotting and the health of bones and blood vessels.

And as fermented foods, “both raw and pasteurized cheeses contain good bacteria that can be beneficial to the human gut microbiota,” says Adam Brock, vice president of food safety, quality and compliance for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. This good bacteria, which is mainly found in aged cheeses such as cheddar and gouda, helps break down food, synthesize vitamins, prevent disease-causing bacteria from gaining a foothold and boost immunity.

Weight gain, misunderstandings about lactose

Cheese also appears to reduce the risk of weight gain and several chronic diseases.

Weight gain: Cheese is a concentrated source of calories. But studies show that you don’t have to skip the cheese to keep the scale stable. In one, published in New England Journal of Medicine, researchers set out to determine which foods are associated with weight gain by following 120,877 men and women in the United States for 20 years, observing their weight every four years. Cheese was not associated with gain or loss, even for people who increased the amount of cheese they ate during the study.

One of the reasons why cheese can help with weight control is that it can suppress appetite more than other dairy products.

Cardiovascular diseases: a big meta-analysis of 15 studies published in the European Journal of Nutrition that looked at the effect of cheese on cardiovascular disease found that people who ate the most (1.5 ounces per day) had a 10 percent lower risk than those who ate none. Other analyzes found that cheese did not appear to affect the risk of heart disease in either case.

Diabetes and hypertension: Cheese and full-fat dairy products also appear to be associated with a lower risk of both. IN study of more than 145,000 people in 21 countries, researchers found that consuming two daily servings of full-fat dairy products or a mix of full-fat and low-fat dairy products was associated with a 24 and 11 percent reduced risk of both conditions compared to consuming neither. Consuming only low-fat dairy products slightly increased the risk. And among people who didn’t have diabetes or hypertension at the start of the nine-year study, those who ate two servings of dairy each day were less likely to develop the disease during the study.

Lactose intolerance: Lactose, the sugar in milk, can be difficult for some people to digest, leading to diarrhea, bloating and other gastrointestinal symptoms. But the bacteria used to make cheese digest most of the lactose in milk, says Jamie Png of the American Cheese Society. Much of the lactose that remains is in the whey, which is separated from the curd near the end of the cheesemaking process and drained. If you are lactose intolerant, stick to hard or aged cheeses such as cheddar, provolone, Parmesan, blue, Camembert and Gouda, and reduce fresh soft cheeses such as ricotta and cottage cheese.

Although cheese itself does not appear to have negative health effects, how you include it in your overall diet is important.

In much of the research suggesting a neutral or beneficial effect, the most cheese people ate each day, on average, was about 1.5 ounces, but in some cases it was up to 3 ounces. (An ounce of cheese is about the size of your outstretched thumb.)

Some studies have found that the health benefits of cheese are greatest when it replaces less healthy foods such as red or meat products. So there’s a big difference between crumbling blue cheese on a salad and serving double-cheese pepperoni pizza. “Incorporating cheese into a Mediterranean diet where you also include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods known to reduce your risk of disease will be most beneficial to your overall health,” says Young.

For those watching their sodium intake, cheese can be quite salty. (Salt acts as a preservative.) If you’re eating about an ounce a day, it’s not a big concern. Most varieties give you between 150 and 300 milligrams of sodium per ounce. (The daily value is no more than 2,300 mg.) But eat more and sodium can increase.

The shape of the cheese can also influence its effect on health. “Many studies on cheese and health use unmelted cheese,” says Feeney. “We still don’t know how melting or cooking affects health outcomes, for example, eating cheese on pizza or in cooked dishes like sandwiches.”

Copyright 2022, Consumer Reports Inc.

Consumer Reports is an independent, non-profit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services and does not accept advertising. Read more at ConsumerReports.org.

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