Cheese is a popular and versatile ingredient that is popular in dishes across cultures. Cheese has gotten a bit of a bad rap in diet culture as a fatty indulgent treat that contributes to unwanted weight gain and poor heart health. But like any food in our diets, it depends on how much you’re eating. When people ask us ‘what is the healthiest cheese’, here are some of our favourites and their benefits.
The healthy versus unhealthy debate
One of the main health benefits of eating cheese is the calcium and B12 you get from it. It constitutes part of the dairy food group, and its calcium content helps to build strong healthy bones and maintain bone health during ageing. It also contains some protein, which helps with preserving muscle mass and managing satiety.
Research has also shown that it’s not just these nutrients in isolation that can make cheese healthy, but also about something called the Food Matrix Effect. The health effects of all dairy foods extend beyond the benefits their individual nutrients provide. In fact, it’s the unique combination of these nutrients and how they interact with each other that contributes to positive health effects.
The structure of a food (liquid milk versus semi-soft cheese, for example) can also affect the bioavailability of these nutrients, and how easily they’re digested and absorbed by the body. Cheese is an excellent example of this. It contains sodium and saturated fat, but several studies have shown that cheese has a neutral effect on health outcomes. In fact, cheese has been shown to reduce the risk of stroke, hypertension and cardiovascular disease in some studies. Experts believe that this is due to the interaction of the nutrients in cheese which, together, modify the effect of saturated fatty acids on cholesterol levels.
Different varieties of cheese do have different nutritional profiles, making some better everyday choices than others. Depending on age and gender, we should be getting between 2-4 serves of dairy foods per day, as recommended by the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. It is best to include milk, yoghurt and cheese across these serves to ensure you’re getting the individual health benefits of each.
Cheese can be included as part of a healthy balanced diet and can be factored in as a daily serve, balanced out with milk and yoghurt. Cheese is energy-dense due to its high fat content, so you can choose reduced fat varieties or eat smaller portions of it if weight management is a priority for you.
The healthiest cheeses
Fresh, unripened cheeses, like cottage cheese, are typically high in moisture and low in fat. They have shorter shelf lives and a milder flavour. This makes cottage cheese versatile, to be used in sweet and savoury dishes. It can add creaminess without adding extra energy, and it can be used as a spread on cracker or sandwiches for extra protein.
Mozzarella cheese is traditionally made from Italian buffalo milk, but is now often made from cow’s milk. It’s lower in sodium and energy than most other cheeses. Use mozzarella in pasta dishes and homemade healthy pizzas topped with plenty of veggies.
While not made from dairy milk, goat’s cheese is growing in popularity as it becomes more available and more affordable. It has a mild flavour and is lower in sodium and fat. You can use it similarly to how you would use feta in salads, on top of pizzas and as a flavour boost in a bowl of warm roasted vegetables.
These include varieties like pecorino and Parmesan, and have been for longer than soft cheeses. This gives them a richer flavour and a crumblier texture. They are also perfect for sprinkling over pizza and pasta, and shavings are delicious over a fresh salad. Hard cheese is a great option for anyone who is lactose intolerant, as it is very low in lactose while still being a good source of calcium and phosphorus for bone health.
Similar to cottage cheese, ricotta is a fresh soft cheese with a mild flavour. It’s typically higher in fat than cottage cheese, but it’s also higher in calcium. It can be used as a spread on crackers or toast with tomatoes or sliced fruit as a healthy snack. It can also add a creamy texture to pasta sauces, especially as a swap in the béchamel when you make lasagne!
Feta is packed in brine to preserve its freshness, making it higher in sodium than most other cheese. But it’s also lower in energy. Some limited research has shown that feta is high in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is a fatty acid linked to improved body composition. Include it crumbled over salads or veggies, or enjoy it with poached eggs on toast for a healthy breakfast.
Originating from Switzerland, it is characterised by its distinctive holes throughout. Lower in fat, energy and sodium when compared with similar-textured cheeses like Cheddar, Swiss cheese is a better choice for sandwiches and on wholegrain crackers.
It has a very high calcium content, but is also high in saturated fats. Due to the rich and distinctive flavour of cheese, many of us find it easier to stick to smaller portions, which usually prevents over-consumption. Add blue cheese to salads, homemade pizza or in small amounts with a fresh pear as an afternoon snack.