Cheese contains a high concentration of essential nutrients, in particular high quality protein and calcium, as well as other nutrients such as phosphorus, zinc, vitamin A, riboflavin, and vitamin B12. The composition of milk used and the manufacturing process influence the nutrient content of specific cheeses. For individuals monitoring or reducing fat in their diet, many reduced fat varieties of cheeses are available. Also, individuals can include cheese in a fat reduced diet by making dietary trade-offs, for example, by balancing higher fat foods with lower fat foods.
Cheeses nutritional contribution to the diet has several health attributes. Certain cheeses such as Cheddar, Swiss, blue, among others, have been demonstrated to reduce the risk of dental caries. Although the anticariogenic effects of cheese are not completely understood, several potential mechanisms are proposed. Milk proteins in cheese have been demonstrated to neutralize plaque acids through their buffering capacity. Cheese appears to prevent acid demineralization and enhance remineralization of tooth enamel. To help reduce tooth decay, health professionals recommend eating cheese immediately after meals, or as a between-meal snack.
Many cheeses, particularly aged cheeses such as Cheddar and Swiss, contain little or no lactose. For this reason, cheese is an important source of calcium and many other nutrients found in milk for lactose maldigesters or persons who have difficulty digesting lactose or milk’s sugar. Because cheese is a calcium-rich food, its inclusion in the diet may help reduce the risk for osteoporosis. In addition, cheese, in moderation, is included in the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet designed to reduce the risk of hypertension. This diet, which includes 3 servings/day of dairy foods (e.g., lowfat and fat free milk and yogurt, regular and low fat cheeses) and 8 to10 servings/day of fruits and vegetables, has also been shown to reduce other risk factors for heart disease, specifically blood levels of total and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and homocysteine.
Cheese’s high nutritional value and its beneficial roles in health make this food an important dairy food to include in a healthful diet. About 10 pounds of milk are used to make one pound of cheese. Cheese is therefore a concentrated source of many of milk’s nutrients. However, the type of milk/milk product used for example whole, reduced fat, nonfat, buttermilk, cream, whey, nonfat dry milk solids, or a combination thereof and the manufacturing process manner of coagulation, length of ripening influence the nutrient content of specific cheeses.
Natural cheeses are made by curdling milk, coagulating casein, milk’s protein, to form curd. Stirring and heating the curd, draining off the whey, and collecting or pressing the curd Cheese can be unripened for example cottage and cream cheeses or ripened, cured, or aged for example Cheddar, Colby, Brie. Separation of milk curds from the whey in cheese-making results in significant partitioning of nutrients and largely explains the differences in the nutrient content of cheese compared to milk. Water-insoluble nutrients of milk such as protein, colloidal minerals and calcium, fat, fat-soluble vitamins, which are primarily retained in the curd, are concentrated in cheese. In contrast, cheese contains fewer water-soluble constituents of milk such as lactose, soluble minerals, water-soluble vitamins because of their removal with the whey. Ripening may influence cheese’s nutrient content, although to a lesser extent than separation of the curds from the whey.
Cheese is a nutrient dense food providing a high concentration of nutrients relative to its energy content. Among dairy foods, cheese is the largest contributor to the amount of protein. Moreover, the proportion of protein from cheese has increased more than five-fold since the turn of the century. Protein in cheese is of high quality, containing all of the essential amino acids in the amounts proportional to the body’s need. Casein is the main protein in cheese, although water-soluble milk proteins (e.g., lactalbumin and lactalglobulin) also may be present depending on the amount of whey entrapped in the cheese. Protein in many cheeses is readily digestible because some of the proteins are broken down during ripening to peptides and amino acids.
Cheese, particularly aged cheeses such as Cheddar cheese, contains a negligible amount of lactose, the major carbohydrate in milk. Most aged cheeses contain minimal (1-3g/100g) or no lactose because of its removal in whey and the conversion of any remaining lactose (approximately 2%) entrapped in the curd to lactic acid and other acids during ripening. Within 21 to 28 days, no lactose is present in ripened cheeses. In fresh unripened cheeses such as cottage cheese, 15 to 20% of the lactose is converted to lactic acid and other acids within a few hours. Because of their low lactose content, most cheeses, particularly aged cheeses, are well tolerated by individuals who have difficulty digesting lactose.
The fat content of cheese is mainly responsible for its flavor and texture, which contribute to consumers’ preference for full fat cheeses. Cheese provides high quality protein, calcium, and other essential nutrients. Also, cheese is a rich source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and sphingolipids, which are milk fat components that may potentially help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as certain cancers and heart.
The vitamin content of cheeses varies due to the milk used and the manufacturing process. Because most of the fat in milk is retained in the curd, cheese contains the fat-soluble vitamins of the milk used in cheese-making, Cheddar cheese made with whole milk contains1,059 IU of vitamin A per100g, whereas dry curd cottage cheese made with nonfat dry milk, contains comparatively less vitamin A (30IU per100g). Because water-soluble vitamins (e.g., thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, and folate) remain in the whey, their content in cheese is influenced by the amount of whey retained in the cheese.
Cheeses are a good source of several minerals, although the amounts of specific minerals in different cheeses vary according to manufacturing procedures. Cheese is the major delivery food for calcium. In ripened whole milk cheese made with a coagulating enzyme (e.g., Cheddar, Swiss, brick), the calcium and phosphorus largely remain in the curd. However, in cheeses coagulated by acid alone such as cottage cheese, less calcium is retained because the calcium salts are removed from the casein. Cheddar cheese contains 721mg calcium per100g (204mg per1 oz serving), whereas dry curd cottage cheese contains 32mg calcium per100g (36mg per 4 oz serving). Because of the addition of creaming mixtures, regular cottage cheese contains more calcium (60mg per100g) than dry curd cottage cheese. In general, cheeses that are high in calcium contain other minerals such as phosphorus and magnesium in appreciable amounts.
The sodium content of cheeses varies due to the different amounts of salt added during cheese-making. In general, natural cheeses such as Swiss (74mg sodium/oz) and Cheddar (176mg sodium/oz) contain less sodium than many process cheeses, which may contain about 400mg sodium/oz (8). For individuals wishing to lower their sodium intake, manufacturers have introduced cheeses reduced in sodium. The recommendation for sodium intake is 2,400mg per day. However, individuals vary in their blood pressure response to changes in dietary sodium intake. Despite extensive research the relationship between sodium intake and hypertension (high blood pressure) continues to be debated (28-30).