Cheese – what’s not to love? Its popularity is indisputable.
Americans consumed over 39 pounds of cheese per capita in 2021 alone, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture.
Whether eating cheese is healthy — that’s a little less clear.
High in protein, calcium, vitamins and essential amino acids, cheese is also a calorie-dense food, and can be high in fats and sodium.
“If you enjoy cheese and you like it, it could be a good source of protein. It could be a good source of calcium. You just want to eat it where you’re not overindulging too much, because it can quickly add up in terms of calories,” Lourdes Castro Mortillaro, a registered dietician and the director of the NYU Food Lab, told CNN.
The protein found in cheese is a good alternative to protein derived from flesh, because it is still of animal origin, and contains all the essential amino acids the body needs but can’t synthesize on its own, according to Castro Mortillaro.
This makes cheese a complete protein, she added.
However, as with all things nutrition, it’s the overall balance of what you eat day to day that should inform how much cheese you consume, Castro Mortillaro explained.
“You really have to see it in the context of, what else is going on in your life? And what else are you putting on your plate?” she said. “You don’t need that much to gain the positives from it.”
Which cheese is healthiest? The answer depends on your specific body and its nutritional needs, but here are some pointers from experts.
Both Castro Mortillaro and Emily Martorano, a registered dietitian with NYU Langone’s weight management program, agree on ricotta being a winner in the healthfulness department.
The name of the cheese translates to “cooked-again,” and Castro Mortillaro explained that authentic ricotta is produced by treating the whey that is leftover after milk (such as sheep’s milk) is coagulated to produce cheese (such as pecorino).
Ricotta has a high concentration of whey protein, which is easily absorbed by the body.
“Whey protein is one of the most absorbable forms of protein and it contains a very wide range of amino acids,” Martorano said. “So this is the best bet for someone who’s looking to build muscle, build strength while also losing fat and weight.”
Castro Mortillaro also pointed to ricotta’s potential sustainability benefits, as it puts to use the leftover byproducts of cheesemaking.
“That’s very Tuscan,” she added.
Castro Mortillaro believes harder cheeses such as Parmigiano, pecorino or gouda are also among the healthiest options, when consumed in moderation.
Because they contain less water and are more concentrated, “hard cheeses are going to be higher in calcium, and you’re probably going to be satiated with smaller amounts, so you tend to not to over-consume,” she said.
However, because they are more concentrated, harder cheeses also might have a higher sodium content than softer ones.
“If you’re hypertensive, or you really need to control your sodium intake, or maybe you have renal issues, then probably going for a softer cheese would be better,” Castro Mortillaro said.
If you’re watching your weight, protein is the name of the game. It keeps you full longer, and helps you build muscle.
Cheeses that are rich in protein and lower in fat are great options for folks looking to manage their weight, Martorano said.
A good way to determine which cheeses fall in this category is to consider a 1:10 ratio of protein to calories, according to Martorano.
“For every 100 calories, there should be at least 10 grams of protein – that will tell you if it’s a good source of protein and in turn a healthier cheese,” she explained.
Some cheeses that she recommended based on this are light Swiss cheese, light cheddar cheese and ricotta.
If possible, steer clear of the highly processed stuff, including cheese in a can, individually wrapped slices and those blocks that don’t even need to be refrigerated.
“Squeezable cheese, American cheese, even cream cheese, provide minimal protein for a much higher fat and sodium content,” Martorano said.
Some of the processed cheese varietals are not even technically classified as “cheeses” by the US Food and Drug Administration, but as “pasteurized process cheese foods” or “pasteurized process cheese products,” depending on the percentage of actual cheese they contain along with other ingredients.
“Fresh is always better,” according to Martorano.
Dietary trends come and go, and Castro Mortillaro remembers the “fat-free phase” in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“We had fat-free cheese and fat-free mayonnaise, and all this other kind of stuff, and it was just highly processed,” she said.
Castro Mortillaro thinks that unless your specific goal is to lose weight, full-fat cheese should have a place in your diet.
“It’s better to have a smaller amount of something that is just more wholesome, if you’re in that neutral category, and enjoy it,” she said.
Some cheeses can also be a good source of probiotics, according to Martorano, who pointed to feta, goat cheese and cheese made from raw or unpasteurized milk as great options.
The artisanal cheese varieties, however, can cost a pretty penny.
“Not everyone can afford to buy the most fancy cheese. When it comes to packaged cheeses, they’re all fine in moderation,” Martorano said.
It’s best to think of cheese as a flavoring agent rather than as a meal in itself, according to both Martorano and Castro Mortillaro.
“Instead of using cheese as the main source of nutrients, it really is a side,” Martorano told CNN.
“If we’re pairing that cheese with something else – a vegetable, a whole grain – that’s what’s going to make it more of a satisfying, filling meal,” she explained.
Ricotta for breakfast, paired with some oatmeal and fruit, could be a healthy start to the day, Martorano suggested.
An afternoon snack with Swiss cheese and vegetables, or a whole grain cracker, would also be a good idea, she said.
Ultimately, unless there are specific concerns you need to keep in mind, the healthiest cheese is your favorite one, enjoyed sparingly as the delicious occasional treat that it should be.
“At the end of the day, if there’s a cheese that someone likes and they want to have it in moderation, it’s better to have the one that you like. So always pick the one you enjoy the most,” Martorano said.