Creamy, gooey, robust in flavor, and utterly delicious, cheese has been part of the human diet for thousands of years. Legend has it that cheese was discovered by accident in ancient times when a shepherd left milk out in the heat of the desert sun. In those days, pouches and flasks were made from sheep stomach lining, and rennet (an enzyme found in the stomach of ruminants) in the pouch caused the whey in the warm milk to separate from casein and result in cheese curds.
Although high in sodium and fat, don’t discount the nutritious value of cheese! Cheese is an excellent source of protein, calcium, magnesium and Vitamin A. Hard cheeses are also low in lactose, and so many lactose-intolerant individuals can handle moderate amounts. Although Americans tend to eat a lot of cheese on everything from sandwiches and pizza to salads, soups, and queso dip, cheese in moderation can be a perfectly healthy part of the diet.
Cholesterol and fat got you worried? Cheese (along with meat, butter and other animal products) often takes the blame if you have high cholesterol, but emerging research is showing that high fat diets (including saturated fat) may not be that detrimental to heart health, and may in fact be beneficial for chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Many of the population studies showing the correlation between saturated fat and heart disease have more to do with other unhealthy foods that people tend to eat alongside saturated fat, such as sugar, refined carbohydrates like white bread, trans fats in processed foods, and limited vegetables, coupled with tendencies towards a sedentary lifestyle.
Research has indicated that full fat dairy products in particular (like cheese, cream, and full fat yogurt) can actually reduce the development of type 2 diabetes, and have neutral, if not beneficial effects on heart disease. Full fat dairy contains more beneficial types of saturated fat, which do not appear to be harmful to cholesterol levels, and may actually boost HDL (good) cholesterol. The benefits seen may also be due to the fact that other nutrients in dairy (like vitamins and minerals) work synergistically to reduce disease risk. Furthermore, raw unpasteurized or aged cheeses like cheddar, Gouda, and provolone are cultured foods containing gut healthy probiotics.
It’s safe to say that you can enjoy small amounts of cheese as part of a healthy diet. A little bit goes a long way in terms of flavor. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different types – from cow to goat to sheep cheese, the flavors are almost endless!By Natalie Colla, CDE, RDN, LDN. Natalie is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator, and food and health blogger. Follow her foodie adventures at www.plantasticeating.com