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Are some types of cheese more nutritious than others?

The kind of cheese you should eat, and how much, depends on your health goals and other aspects of your diet. While it’s a great source of protein, vitamin A, B12 and zinc, it’s also concentrated in calories and contains a fair amount of sodium.

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The question

I love cheese but I worry that it's adding too much fat and too many calories to my diet. How much am I saving if I switch to low-fat cheese? Are some types of cheese more nutritious than others?

The answer

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Ah, cheese. Mac and cheese, grilled cheese, pizza, nachos, quesadillas, Greek salad and, of course, cheese and crackers (a fixture on holiday party menus).

When it comes to its nutritional merits, cheese is a good-news, bad-news story. What kind of cheese – and how much – you should eat depends on your health goals and your overall diet.

For the purposes of this column, I'm talking about natural cheese, not processed cheese slices or spreads, which often contain only half real cheese along with ingredients such as glucose, corn syrup, emulsifiers, extra salt, whey, numerous preservatives and colouring. (Some products, such as Cheez Whiz, don't list any real cheese among its ingredients.)

Natural cheese is made by curdling milk with rennet and/or bacterial enzymes and then separating the solid curds from the liquid whey component. Cheese curds may then be salted and heated to force more liquid from the curds; the less moisture, the harder the cheese.

Cheese curds can be drained and packaged fresh (e.g., ricotta), stored in a salty brine (e.g., feta) or ripened/aged to intensify flavour and add texture (e.g., cheddar, mozzarella, Gouda). The ingredient list on the block of aged white cheddar in my fridge is simple: Milk, bacterial culture, salt, rennet and/or microbial enzyme.

Nutritional benefits

On the nutrition front, cheese has a lot going for it. It's a great source of protein, vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B12, zinc and phosphorus. One ounce of hard cheese supplies as much protein (6 to 10 grams), or more, than the amount found in two large egg whites.

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Cheese also contains a little conjugated linoleic acid, a fatty acid thought to have anti-cancer and weight-control properties. But you'd have to eat a lot of cheese to get a meaningful amount.

And, like other dairy products, most types of cheese are exceptional sources of calcium. One ounce (30 g) of cheddar, for instance, delivers 202 milligrams of the mineral, 20 per cent of a day's worth for adults 19 to 50 years old, who require 1000 mg of calcium a day.

Calcium content varies

Not all cheeses deliver a hefty dose of calcium, though. Harder and denser cheeses with less moisture are more concentrated in nutrients, including calcium. Parmesan contains a lot of the mineral, supplying 355 mg of calcium per ounce.

Softer cheeses, however, provide less calcium. Feta contains 148 mg of calcium per ounce, cottage cheese delivers a modest 73 mg per one-half cup and two tablespoons of cream cheese supplies only 30 mg, 3 per cent of a day's worth.

Harder cheeses also have very little lactose, since most of the lactose is found in the liquid whey component that's removed. During the ripening process, any remaining lactose is converted to lactic acid. Most people with mild to moderate lactose intolerance can eat hard cheese without symptoms.

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Nutritional drawbacks

On the minus side, cheese is concentrated in calories, thanks to its high fat content. Like milk and yogurt, packages of cheese state the percentage of milk fat (M.F.), which indicates the grams of total fat per 100 g of cheese.

Many types of cheese, such as cheddar, mozzarella and Brie, are approximately 30-per-cent milk fat. Translation: One ounce (30 g) delivers 10 g of fat (2.5 teaspoons' worth or butterfat) and 100 to 125 calories. (One ounce of hard cheese is about the size of a pair of dice.)

Much of the fat in cheese – 55 per cent to 70 per cent – is saturated fat, the type that raises so-called bad, LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream. An ounce of full-fat cheese has 5 to 6 g of saturated fat, one-quarter of a day's worth for a 2,000-calorie diet.

Cheese also contains a fair amount of sodium. In general, hard and brined cheeses provide the most sodium and soft cheeses provide less. There are exceptions, though. Cottage cheese, for instance, can provide upwards of 900 mg of sodium per cup, almost two-thirds of day's worth.

The reduced-fat savings

Switching to part-skim milk cheese (15-to-20-per-cent M.F.) will save calories and fat, but not as much as you might think. Part skim mozzarella, for example, saves only 20 calories and 2.5 g of fat per ounce.

Cheeses made from skim milk (4-per-cent milk fat) offer a bigger savings; they contain about 60 calories and 1 g of fat per ounce. Keep in mind that reduced-fat cheeses take longer to melt. And you might be sacrificing taste.

Portion-control tips

Cheese is nutritious and there's no reason to avoid it outright. If you're watching your calorie intake or trying to lower your blood cholesterol level, limit your portion of full-fat cheese to one ounce per day.

Add less cheese to sandwiches and wraps by using grated cheese instead of slices. Or, use a cheese plane to slice cheese very thinly.

Use part-skim cheeses in recipes that call for a large amount of cheese, such as lasagna, burritos and mac and cheese.

Order pizza with half the amount of full-fat mozzarella cheese.

Or, skip the mozzarella and top your pizza with goat's cheese or feta cheese (both have less fat and more flavour).

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.

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