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 irresistible on a cracker, paired with a selection of fresh fruit or sprinkled over a bowl of chili. Americans really love it. Per capita consumption is 40 pounds per year, or just over 1.5 ounces per day.

But when people talk about their fondness for cheese, it’s often in a guilty way, like, “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 gain weight or give you a heart attack. Cheese does not appear to increase or decrease the risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, and some studies suggest that it may even be protective.

Good bacteria, lower risks from saturated fat

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

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

Old-school thinking about nutrition focused on individual nutrients—such as fat or protein—that promoted or prevented disease. It’s not clear that this is the wrong approach, but nutrition experts are now placing more emphasis on the whole food and how its structure, nutrients, enzymes and other components interact with each other.

When milk is transformed into cheese, the process changes the way the nutrients and other components in it are chemically arranged. This has an effect on how it is absorbed and processed by the body, which can lead to health effects that are different from the effects of eating the same nutrients in another form, such as oil.

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

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

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

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

Weight gain, lactose intolerance

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 you don’t have to skip the cheese to keep the scale steady. In one published in New England Journal of Medicine, researchers set out to determine which foods were associated with weight gain by following 120,877 men and women in the United States for 20 years, looking at their weight every four years. Cheese was not associated with either gain or loss, even for people who increased the amount of cheese they ate during the study.

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

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

Diabetes and hypertension: Cheese and full-fat dairy also appear to be associated with a lower risk of both. IN survey of more than 145,000 people in 21 countries, the researchers found that eating 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 the two conditions, compared to eating none. Eating only low-fat dairy products slightly increases 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 diseases during the study.

Lactose intolerance: Lactose, a 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 found in the whey, which is separated from the curd towards the end of the cheese-making process and drained. If you’re lactose intolerant, stick to hard or aged cheeses like cheddar, provolone, parmesan, blue, camembert, and gouda, and minimize fresh soft cheeses like ricotta and cottage cheese.

Although cheese itself does not appear to have a negative impact on health, how you incorporate it into your overall diet does matter.

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

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

For those watching their sodium intake, the cheese can be quite salty. (Salt acts as a preservative.) If you’re eating about an ounce a day, this isn’t much of a concern. Most types give you between 150 and 300 milligrams of sodium per ounce. (The daily value is no more than 2,300 mg.) Eat more, however, and sodium can increase.

The form that cheese takes can also affect how it affects health. “A lot of the research on cheese and health uses unmelted cheese,” says Feeney. “We don’t yet know how melting or cooking affects health outcomes, such as eating cheese on pizza or in cooked dishes like casseroles.”

Copyright 2022, Consumer Reports Inc.

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