Why your cheese addiction isn’t as bad for you as you think

·9-min read
Your cheeseboard contains essential calcium and vitamins – just don’t go wild - iStockphoto
Your cheeseboard contains essential calcium and vitamins – just don’t go wild - iStockphoto

It’s one of the best things on the Christmas table. A sprawling cheese board to be worked away at, with a slab of gooey Brie, a blue-veined Stilton, something soft and goaty, all nestled between crackers and a bunch of token grapes.

Brits already eat an average of 30g of cheese a day but by the end of the festive season, it’s fair to assume most of us will have really overdone it. By January, we’ll be worrying about our cholesterol and switching to dairy-free alternatives, ushering out the last of the triple Crème de Chaource and swapping it for cashew ‘mozzarella’. But how much do we really need to worry about our cheese consumption? Festive excess aside, how far should we be attempting to curtail our daily addiction?

Fromagers in France have been protesting against the country’s scoring system, which ranks food products based on their nutritional value, billing cheeses high in salt and fat as being nutritionally weak. The European Commission is considering making the so-called Nutri-Score mandatory next year, much to the horror of producers of Roquefort, Rocamadour and Maroilles among others, who pointed out that giving their natural cheeses low nutrition ratings when ultra processed ingredients packed with preservatives could be given a much higher rating seemed “paradoxical”. Coca-Cola, for instance, is ranked B, while Saint-Nectaire, a squidgy cow’s milk cheese from the Auvergne, has a Nutri-Score of D.

Producers are calling for appellation cheeses (which adhere to strict production rules in order to protect their identities as heritage artisan food products) to be exempt from the scoring system, as wines are. Béatrice Roux, who produces the semi-hard cheeses Cantal and Salers, told France Info: “As cheesemakers, salt is our only conservative and cheese is fat by nature. If they put these bad scores on our appellation products, we’re all in deep trouble.”

So is your cheeseboard a health risk, or does it contain essential calcium and vitamins?

Beware the bad fats

There has been fervent debate in recent years about whether fat should be demonised to the extent that sugar has been. Dietary fat is essential – we need it to survive. But when it’s saturated (as it often is in high levels in animal products such as meat and cheese) it’s harder for the body to break down than the unsaturated fats that tend to be found in plants and fish.

Dr Stacey Lockyer, senior nutrition scientist, British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), says most types of full fat cheese are high in saturated fat “which we should all aim to reduce in our diets due to the link between high saturated fat consumption and raised blood cholesterol”.

She adds: “Some evidence has shown that milk and dairy foods may have neutral or protective effects on cardiovascular disease despite some products being higher in saturated fats. But on balance it is still a good idea to go for lower fat dairy foods most of the time as these provide the essential nutrients for less saturated fat and calories.”

Cut off the rinds to cut down the fat

It’s such a simple trick, but nutritionist Jane Clarke says slicing the rinds off a ripe Camembert can drastically lower the amount of fat you’re consuming. “If you cut the rind off a soft cheese like Brie, you can reduce its fat content by two-thirds,” says Clarke, founder of Nourish by Jane Clarke. “The majority of the fat is in the rind, so you can get the lovely runny bit from the middle.”

Unsurprisingly, all those gooey, mould-ripened cheeses with deliciously creamy centres (like Camembert) tend to be among the highest in saturated fat. But while Clarke agrees we shouldn’t have too much saturated fat, she feels products like high fat cheeses are demonised more than processed alternatives ought to be. “Too much of anything can lead to obesity. Cheese is naturally high in fat but it’s a great source of calcium for our bones,” she says.

“Cholesterol is a risk factor, it is not a cause of heart disease. If you’re looking at saturated animal fat... I think it’s much better to have a normal cheese and normal butter and then have something wholegrain alongside it or fruit or vegetables.”

Eat your cheese with something fibrous

You can help your body cushion its absorption of the fats in cheese by eating it with something high in fibre. Clarke suggests eating slices of cheese with a wholegrain, seedy cracker, a stick of celery or an apple: “Choose the cheese that you love and have a small amount of it and put it with something that helps your body deal with the fats and that side.”

The texture contrast also helps satiate you faster. “You get the delicious taste, and also by having the contrast of a crisp apple or a whole grain or a charcoal biscuit, your taste buds are satisfied by the smaller amount of cheese,” she adds.

“So if you do a small bit of a stronger cheese, a little bit of bread or a grape, you then get satiated more than you would do from a whole big chunk of processed cheese.”

Nutritionist Jane Clarke: ‘Cheese is naturally high in fat but it’s a great source of calcium’ - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph
Nutritionist Jane Clarke: ‘Cheese is naturally high in fat but it’s a great source of calcium’ - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph

Feta is better

Fresh cheeses like ricotta and feta are relatively low in fat. Feta is a helpful one to have in your arsenal if you’re a cheese fanatic, says Clarke. “Because it’s so crumbly you can get that nice cheese fix without having a massive chunk of it.

“It’s a great one for using in salads or sprinkling on top of a dish that you’re not wanting to load with too much cheese. You don’t need much of it to satisfy you, whereas with processed cheeses they’re taking the salt down because they’re being hammered by food legislation... and then putting stuff in that is certainly not good for the body. You end up not feeling satiated afterwards, looking for your next binge.”

That retro diet staple cottage cheese is, predictably, among the lowest in fat, though you’re unlikely to include it as part of a cheeseboard. Meanwhile, Stilton, Double Gloucester, mascarpone and Cheddar are among the highest in saturated fat.

If it’s calcium you’re after, however, Parmesan, Emmental and Gruyère are all good sources of calcium and vitamin A. They’re also the best kinds of cheeses for anyone with a lactose sensitivity as their whey has been removed.

Clarke says Parmesan has a good amount of calcium “per gram”, but notes you don’t tend to use much of it, so it’s not one to rely on for getting all the essential calcium your body needs – about 700mg a day for the average adult, according to the NHS (a 30g helping of Parmesan will only amount to about 30 per cent of the daily recommended dose).

Fake cheese – worse than the real thing

The trouble with cheese substitutes (apart from the fact that it can be hard to find a genuinely tasty one) is that they don’t necessarily add up to a healthier mouthful. Lockyer says that in fact they can be “a less healthy choice than cheese made from cow’s milk” and typically don’t provide the range of micronutrients found in real cheese.

“For example, some cheese substitutes are made with coconut oil, which is very high in saturated fat. It is also important to check if the product is fortified with calcium and the other micronutrients that cheese provides.”

Clarke says processed substitutes can be more damaging to the body. “I would much rather have something that is not processed, because the evidence is that trans fats and processed fats are far more damaging for the body, so I always encourage my patients to have normal cheese instead of low fat cheese.”

Overprocessing tends to be where many of our health problems stem from, says Clarke. “[Such as] when we’re trying to muck around with something like a processed cheese. I wouldn’t choose one that’s had the calcium added back into it because the research shows that you don’t absorb the calcium as efficiently when it’s an added ingredient as you would do from the actual food source itself.”

Cutting out Cheddar won’t save the planet

Buying lots of cheese is often vilified for being anti-environmental as it contributes to the impact the dairy industry has on climate change. But the BNF warned this summer that ditching dairy entirely could lead to poorer diets. A paper published in the Nutrition Bulletin concluded there was no evidence in the 29 studies it examined over 10 years to recommend reducing the consumption of dairy products because their high nutritional value outweighed their environmental impact. The paper warned that cutting out animal products entirely could lead to nutritional deficiencies in key vitamins and minerals including iron, zinc and iodine.

Lockyer says dairy food can be a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals. “Most types of cheese are a source of calcium, vitamin B12, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin A, iodine, zinc and phosphorus. However, cheeses also contain saturated fat and salt and so this needs to be balanced against their positive nutrient content.”

Everything in moderation

If you’re going to eat cheese regularly, then, just don’t overdo it (or at least not outside the Christmas party period...).

Lockyer points out cheese features in the NHS Eatwell Guide as it provides key nutrients. “We don’t have official guidance on how often to eat dairy foods but work we have done on portion sizes in a balanced diet suggests it’s a good idea to include two to three portions of dairy foods in our diet per day.

“This also includes milk and yogurt and these tend to be lower in saturates and salt than cheeses. For cheese, a typical portion could be 100g (three tablespoons) of cottage cheese and about 30g of other types of cheese, which equates to about three teaspoons of soft cheeses and a piece of hard cheese about the size of two thumbs.”

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