Creating Health and Nutrition: Selecting Cheese for Health

This fact sheet provides dietary tips and an overview of the nutrition information of cheese, explains why cheeses are so different, and briefly describes how cheese is manufactured.
Creating Health and Nutrition: Selecting Cheese for Health - Articles

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The broad array of cheeses on the market today provides many flavorful opportunities to enhance your diet and health. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and myplate.gov, Americans aged 14 and older should consume 3 cups of dairy as a part of a 2,000-calorie diet each day. One cup from the dairy group is equal to 1½ ounces of natural cheese or 2 ounces of processed cheese (a blend of cheeses mixed with emulsifying salt and other ingredients). Some ways to increase dairy in your diet are to have cheese as snacks and to add cheese in recipes for entrées, vegetables, grain dishes, and desserts.

Cheese Nutrition Information

Many people know that cheese has protein and fat, and some may know that cheese has calcium, saturated fat, and sodium, but what types of cheese are better choices? To make smart choices, know that along with the wide range of flavors and textures of cheeses on the market today, there are ranges in fat, protein, lactose, and nutrient content of different cheeses. The table below gives an overview of the nutrition of some common cheeses. Be sure to read each cheese’s Nutrition Facts panel to help you select the right cheese for your dietary needs.

Based on 1 ounce portionCaloriesFat (g)Saturated Fat (g)Sodium (mg)Protein (g)Calcium (mg)Lactose (g) (**per 1 oz unless noted)
American Cheese (processed)1029546852930.11 per slice
Blue1008532561500.14
Brie95851786520.13
Brick105851597191***
Camembert85742396110***
Cheddar1159518562010.07
Cottage (1% milkfat)81114591469***
Cream Cheese99106892273.76 per 100 g
Feta75642604140***
Goat Cheese (soft)7564130540***
Gouda101852327198***
Monterey Jack1069517072110.14
Mozzarella (whole milk)85641786143***
Mozzarella (skim milk)84631897198***
Muenster104951787203***
Parmesan11175390103360.00
Provolone100852487214***
String Cheese*80641907200***
Swiss111955382520.02

Sources: USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28 and National Dairy Council.
*From product's Nutrition Facts panel for low-fat Mozzarella string cheese.
**Note: Lactose is not listed on Nutrition Facts panels. If the cheese's Nutrition Facts label shows that it contains carbohydrate, then this means lactose, unless an added sugar is listed in the ingredient label.
***Lactose analysis value unavailable.

Motivational Tip

Choose a cheese that fits within a healthy eating pattern for your dietary needs. Cheese can be included as a part of a balanced diet.

Sodium

Different cheeses have different sodium contents. Limiting cheese servings to an ounce or two can help keep sodium levels in check. You can see from the cheese comparison table that there is a variety of both high- and low- sodium cheese options available. Using small amounts of highly flavored cheese can help provide the desired cheesy flavor without excess sodium. Alternatively, mixing a cheese higher in sodium or fat with one that’s lower can work as well.

Lactose

Did you know that some cheeses have negligible carbohydrate? Even though cheese is made from milk (which contains milk sugar or lactose, the carbohydrate in milk), some of the lactose is drained off with the whey during the cheese-making process and some is used by cultures during the fermentation process. Aged cheeses are a low-carbohydrate dairy product that can be eaten in moderation by individuals who are lactose intolerant (i.e., those who lack the enzyme to digest naturally occurring milk carbohydrate lactose) or need to control their carbohydrate intake, such as a person with diabetes. A cup of whole milk contains 12.32 grams of lactose, while Brie, a soft-ripened cheese, contains 0.13 gram of lactose per 1 ounce, and Parmesan, a hard cheese, contains 0 grams of lactose per 1 ounce. If a cheese’s Nutrition Facts label shows that it contains carbohydrate, then this means lactose, unless an added sugar is given in the ingredient list.

Fat

If you choose to eat a cheese that is not low in fat, remember to count those calories against your limit for calories and saturated fat for the day. The daily guideline for saturated fat is less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fat. For someone consuming 2,000 calories per day, limiting saturated fat to fewer than 22 grams per day from all dietary sources meets that recommendation.

More research is necessary to determine if saturated fat from cheese is good or bad for health. Emerging research being conducted in different parts of the world using both humans and rat models is finding that cheese may not affect human blood fat levels as once was thought. Saturated fats raise the unhealthy LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels in the bloodstream, which can increase the risk for coronary artery disease. Research in 2016 showed that consuming a diet high in regular-fat cheese compared to a diet in reduced-fat cheese did not affect LDL cholesterol, cardiovascular, or type 2 diabetes risk factors. This suggests that healthy adults may be able to consume whole-milk dairy products as a part of a healthy lifestyle. Researchers speculate that it may have to do with the calcium levels in cheese providing a beneficial effect by reducing saturated fat absorption during digestion, or milk’s unique fat profile and how it interacts with other foods. More research is necessary to understand if or how the saturated fats in cheese affect LDL and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels in the bloodstream.

Common Cheese Styles

StyleCommon CharacteristicsExamples
Fresh cheeseUnripened cheese eaten within a few days or weeks of being madeCottage cheese, Farmer’s cheese, Feta*, Mascarpone, Ricotta, Chèvre, Queso Fresco
Soft-ripened cheeseSoft-textured high-moisture cheese (> 50%) cheese that may have a soft mold rind on the outside; classified based on its textureBrie and Camembert
Semi-soft and semi-hard cheeseCheese with a moisture content between 39 and 50%, a semi-soft texture, and is easy to sliceGouda, Edam, Havarti, Mozzarella, Provolone, Swiss, Monterey Jack, and Colby
Hard cheeseLow-moisture-content cheese (< 39%); great for slicing and gratingCheddar, Parmesan, Romano
Washed-rindSemi-soft cheese made by washing the outside of the cheese with a brine to add texture and flavorTaleggio, American specialty cheeses
Natural-rindCheeses that are aged under specific conditions to develop a hard rind and some mold and then packagedClothbound Cheddar and a variety of hard cheeses
Pasta FilataCurds that are stretched to a desired textureMozzarella, Provolone, and string cheese
Blue cheeseCheese ripened with harmless flavorful blue mold cultures, giving the cheese blue or green veins/spots of mold; may be creamy or crumbly in textureRoquefort, Gorgonzola, and Blue cheese
Cheese with eyesSemi-soft or waxy cheese that has gas holes or “eyes” as a part of its appearanceSwiss and Baby Swiss
ProcessedBlend of fresh and aged cheese that are shredded, mixed, and heated with the addition of an emulsifier saltAmerican cheese, processed cheeses, cheese spreads

Adapted from Cornelisse et al., “Farmstead and Artisan Cheesemaking” (University Park: Penn State Extension, 2008).
*Feta may be made with milk from goats or cows. The traditional source for this Greek cheese is sheep’s milk or a combination of sheep and goat milk.

Protein

Cheese is a great choice for a portable protein option. Protein varies from minimal (cream cheese at about 2 grams per ounce), moderate (Brie, Feta, American, Mozzarella at 4–6 grams per ounce), to high (Muenster, Cottage Cheese, Provolone, Parmesan, and Swiss at 7–14 grams per ounce) in different cheese types.

Examine Your Choices

Food and issuesWhat I buyWhat I plan to buy/change
Cheese—need to control saturated fat intakePurchase whole-fat Cheddar cheesePurchase Cheddar cheese made from 2% milk
Cheese—intake; watching caloriesWhole-fat varietyWhole-fat variety; eat in moderation and watch serving size

My Goal: To keep my saturated fat intake below 10% of my calories each day while still including cheese.

Other Nutrients

Cheese has a place in a healthy diet because it also provides nutrients like the minerals calcium and phosphorus, along with vitamin D, all of which are important for good health, such as promoting growth in children and strong bones and teeth.

Why Are Cheeses So Different?

So how can there be such a range of nutritional profiles for different cheeses? We know that the flavor and texture of Chèvre (a soft, tart French cheese) is different from crumbly, strong-tasting Brie, which is different from sharp or mild Cheddar, which is different from mild Parmesan. These cheeses illustrate different styles, manufacturing processes, and compositional ranges. Cheese can be categorized into different styles based loosely on their textural or important manufacturing characteristics as described in the table. Cheese can also be categorized by the type of milk used (i.e., goat, sheep, cow, mixed), other processing characteristics (raw or pasteurized milk, fresh or aged), or traditional practices and names (Cheddar, Brie, Gouda, etc.). Cheeses typically fall into more than one category, and there is no single way to categorize cheese.

How Cheese Is Manufactured

To link the nutritional aspects with the textural and compositional aspects of cheese, it helps to understand, briefly, how cheese is made. Cheese can be made from different types of milk: cow, goat, sheep, water buffalo, or a mixture. In the United States, the Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR 133) defines standards for many different types of cheeses, which includes allowable ingredients, processing, and aging requirements. Some cheeses are allowed to be made with raw milk, which must be aged for at least 60 days at temperatures below 35°F for food safety reasons.

Different processing conditions are selected and optimized for the type of cheese to be produced. Depending on the kind of cheese being made, specific bacterial starter cultures are chosen to break down lactose into lactic acid. Other microorganisms may be added (i.e., yeasts and molds) to create distinct flavors and textures. Once the pasteurized or raw milk is in the vat, it is heated to about 90°F and the starter cultures are added. After 30 to 60 minutes, an enzyme called rennet is added to help clot the milk. The coagulum (clot) is cut into small pieces, or curds. Depending on the cheese, the curds may be cooked slightly, washed, drained, or just stirred until the appropriate pH is reached. The curds are gently separated from the whey and placed into forms. The curds in the forms may press together under their own weight or by using a mechanical press. At some point, the cheese is salted by either salting the curds before pressing or dry salting or brining the whole cheese after it is formed. The salt helps control the moisture content, influences the flavor and texture of the cheese, and is used for food safety. The cheese may be aged for days, months, or years, depending on the type of cheese. Some cheese require special processes to give them their characteristics, such as the development of mold in Blue cheeses or the stretching of Mozzarella curd to align the proteins, making the “string” in string cheese.

In general, fresh, young cheeses are higher in moisture and therefore lower in solids than aged cheese. Aged cheeses have more time for the cheese cultures to use up the lactose, so aged cheeses tend to have less lactose than fresh, soft cheeses.

Dietary Tips

  • To help control calories, sodium, or saturated fat, stick to consuming one serving of cheese: 1½ ounces for natural cheese or 2 ounces of processed cheese. (Note: 1½ ounces of cheese equals the size of a nine-volt battery or three dominoes stacked together.)
  • Choose cheese according to your dietary needs. Consuming too much sodium can increase risk for developing serious medical conditions, like high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. For those with high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol, eat cheese in moderation. Pay special attention to cheese Nutrition Facts panels, and choose a cheese that is right for your nutritional needs while maximizing flavor and nutrients.

Recipe: Creamy Cheesy Macaroni

Total time: 45 minutes
Preparation time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 package (14.5 ounces) whole-wheat elbow macaroni
  • 1½ cups fat-free cottage cheese
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • ½ cup flour
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 2 cups skim milk
  • 2 cups reduced-fat sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • Fresh parsley for garnish (optional)

Directions

Cook macaroni according to package directions. Meanwhile, blend cottage cheese in a food processor or blender until smooth. Set aside. In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine oil, flour, pepper, and garlic powder. Stir until mixed. Gradually stir in the milk and bring to a boil. Cook for 2 minutes or until thickened and smooth. Add cottage cheese and Cheddar cheese, stirring until melted. Spray a 2-quart casserole dish with cooking spray. After the macaroni has been cooked and drained, place it in the prepared dish. Pour the cheese mixture over the macaroni and mix until blended. Bake at 350°F for about 30 minutes or until heated through (thermometer reads 165°F). Top with tomatoes just before serving.

Nutrient Information

Servings per recipe: 10, Serving size: 1 cup
Per serving: calories 300, total fat 11 g, saturated fat 5 g, sodium 292 mg, carbohydrate 41 g, fiber 4 g, protein 18 g, 12% DV calcium.

For Comparison

From “Mac & Cheese” in Betty Crocker Cookbook:
1 cup serving is 610 kcal
Per serving: total fat 34 g, saturated fat 21 g, sodium 790 mg, carbohydrates 51 g, fiber 2 g, protein 26 g, 46% DV calcium.

Sources

Betty Crocker Cookbook. Wiley, 2005.

“Cheese & Nutrition Brochure.” Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and National Dairy Council, 2011.

Cornelisse, S., K. Kaylegian, L. Kime, J. Harper, and E. Montgomery. "Agricultural Alternatives: Farmstead and Artisan Cheesemaking.” University Park: Penn State Extension, 2018.

Cornelli, U., G. Bondiolotti, G. Battelli, G. Zanoni, A. Fico, and M. Recchia. “Activity of 30 different cheeses on cholesterol plasma levels and Oxidative Balance Risk Index in a rat model.” Int J Food Sci Nutr 66, no. 4 (2015): 383–90.

Dennett, C. “Say Cheese, Please!” Environmental Nutrition, October 2017.

Healthy Recipes: Creamy cheesy macaroni.” Mayo Clinic. Accessed June 19, 2018.

Potter, N., and J. Hotchkiss. Food Science. 5th ed. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Raziani, F., T. Tholstrup, M. Kristensen, M. Svanegaard, C. Ritz, A. Astrup, and A. Raben. “High intake of regular-fat cheese compared with reduced-fat cheese does not affect LDL cholesterol or risk markers of the metabolic syndrome: a randomized controlled trial.” Am J Clin Nutr 104 (2016): 973–81.

Sadeghi, M., H. Khosravi-Boroujeni, N. Sarrafzadegan, S. Asgary, H. Roohafza, M. Gharipour, F. Sajjadi, S. Khalesi, and M. Rafieiankopaei. “Cheese consumption in relation to cardiovascular risk factors among Iranian adults—IHHP Study.” Nutrition Research and Practice 8, no. 3 (2014): 336–41.

USDA Food Composition Database for Standard Reference Release 28. Accessed June 18, 2018.

Prepared by Stacy Reed, extension educator; Rayna Cooper, retired extension educator; and Kerry E. Kaylegian, dairy foods research and extension associate. Edited by Lynn James, senior extension educator.

Authors