It’s no wonder people are confused about whether it’s good to eat cheese, when even food experts are divided. Some argue that we’re not eating enough of this important source of protein and calcium, while others say the high levels of salt and saturated fat mean we should be eating less.
Whatever your position, it’s becoming increasingly hard to avoid cheese. Whether its grilled halloumi with poached eggs for breakfast, pumpkin and feta salad for lunch, or pepperoni pizza for dinner, cheese is a key ingredient in many regular meals. It’s a popular snack food, with many health professionals promoting crackers and cheese as a high-protein snack. A cheese platter is also the favourite way to kick off afternoon drinks or a barbeque.
So just how much cheese are Australians eating, and is it good for us?
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults eat about 2.5 serves of dairy (including milk, yoghurt and cheese) a day. They also say this should preferably be low-fat to ensure that nutrient needs are met without exceeding energy requirements.
Available sales data for cheese suggest that Australians are eating 13.6kg of cheese per person per year, which works out at 37g per person per day, or just less than one Australian portion (Australian portion sizes are 25% bigger than European Union ones, at 40g compared with 30g).
It seems that the advice to limit full-fat cheeses to two or three serves per week is being ignored. Low-fat products only made up 29% of dairy products consumed in the last dietary survey while cheese accounted for 99% of the high-fat dairy products consumed.
Full-fat cheese products contain high levels of saturated fat, which can increase the risk of heart disease. A 40g portion of cheese can contain between 2.24g (reduced-fat ricotta) and 9.5g (Danish creamy cheese Havarti) of saturated fat.
This is 11% and 40%, respectively, of the amount used as the reference guide for daily intake labelling. So even though actual recommendations depend on individual energy requirements, it is still clear that we need to limit our consumption of full-fat cheese to avoid excessive amounts of saturated fat.
The levels of sodium in cheese are also something to watch out for as too much salt increases blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Sodium levels in one 40g portion of cheese range from 74mg (4% of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended daily amount) in reduced-fat ricotta, to a scary 1,160mg (58% of the WHO’s recommended daily amount) in halloumi.
Interestingly, processed cheddar contains twice as much sodium as unprocessed cheddar, at 532mg per portion (26% of WHO recommended amount), so it would seem better to opt for the unprocessed version on that basis (although this may have higher levels of saturated fat and less calcium).
The definition of a processed cheese is a product manufactured from cheese and products obtained from milk, which is heated and melted, with or without added emulsifying salts, to form a homogeneous mass.
Such products can be produced more cheaply, last longer and are more convenient to use and so are a popular product for kids’ school lunchboxes. Current concerns over increasing childhood obesity in Australia means its important to keep an eye on fat and energy contents of children’s foods.
Kraft singles and Bega Stringers both contain a little less energy, substantially less saturated fat, and about the same amount of sodium and calcium per portion as regular cheddar cheese. Meanwhile, Philadelphia cream cheese contains even less energy and much less sodium but is higher in saturated fat.
A recent meta-analysis of 15 studies, that suggested moderate cheese consumption (up to 40g per day) was associated with reduced heart disease risk, didn’t differentiate between low and full fat cheeses.
The authors (two of whom incidentally work for a leading dairy company in Asia) suggested the calcium, protein, vitamins or minerals (not specified) in cheese might explain the apparent protective health benefits.
Cheese is a good source of calcium and we need calcium for bones and teeth as well as regulating muscle and heart functions.
The recommendations are for most adults and children aged nine and above to eat 1,000-1,300mg of calcium a day. A 40g serving of cheddar cheese contains around 320mg. So you would need to eat at least three portions if you were to get your calcium requirements just from cheese.
So what’s the verdict?
For maximum health outcomes I’d stick to the advice to eat two to three serves of dairy (mainly low fat) per day. This may include one serve of low-fat cheese, with maybe one serve each of low-fat milk and yoghurt to ensure you get enough calcium. I’d also stick with the recommendations to limit full-fat cheeses to two to three serves per week.
Enjoy sparingly (two to three times a week): full-fat cheeses, hard cheeses, feta, halloumi, blue cheese.
Eat moderate amounts (one portion a day): low-fat cheeses, cottage cheese, reduced fat ricotta, reduced fat mozarella.