Legend has it that an Arabian merchant discovered cheese by storing milk in a container made from a sheep’s stomach for a journey across the desert. The heat of the desert caused the milk to react with the rennet in the stomach and separate into curds and whey. The merchant, clearly a brave and enterprising soul, tried the curds and found them delightful. Thus cheese was brought into the world.
Whatever the true history of cheese, it’s here now, and it’s incredible. But is it healthy? We asked dietitian Aisling Pigott of the British Dietetic Association exactly that.
Let’s start with the positives.
What are the health benefits of cheese?
“It’s delicious,” says Pigott, who knows what people want to hear. However, cheese’s benefits go beyond its excellent flavour.
“It’s a great source of protein and calcium, and it’s low in lactose, so it’s an ideal source of calcium for those who are struggling to digest lactose – for example if they have transient lactose intolerance.”
That cheese is laden with calcium won’t be news to many of you, but you might not know just how loaded with protein certain kinds are. Check out our ranking of high-protein foods, which has parmesan at number two with 32g per 100g, edam at six with 27g and cheddar at eight with 25g.
What are the downsides of cheese?
“Cheese is high in fat, particularly saturated fat,” says Pigott. “It’s energy-dense and easy to overeat.”
We can all vouch for that last point – very few foods are as moreish as cheese. But if you keep your cheese intake in check your overall calorie count won’t spiral well beyond the recommended max, and there’s little to worry about. That’s unless you’re someone with an increased risk of listeria food poisoning – if you have a weakened immune system, for example – in which case it’s wise to steer clear of blue cheese.
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Are there any types of cheese that are healthier than others?
You could live a hundred lifetimes and still not try every cheese that exists, and there is a large variety in the nutritional make-up of different cheeses. So, if you’re worried about the amount of calories in your cheese, you have options.
“There are low-fat cheeses available, but as with many low-fat products, if the taste isn’t up to scratch, it can leave us feeling dissatisfied,” says Pigott.
“Some cheese – like feta – is slightly lower in energy, and its strong flavour means it can go a long way.’
Opting for strong flavours in general can help you satisfy any cheese cravings without over-indulging, but naturally this will only work in certain situations.
“Generally I suggest strong flavours to people, like parmesan and mature cheeses, ensuring they can use less but enjoy the same taste,” says Pigott.
“But like everything it’s about what’s appropriate – there is no point putting feta on a cottage pie. That would taste strange…”