Cheese 101: Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits

Written by Atli Arnarson, PhD on November 12, 2014

Cheese is a dairy product made from milk, produced in a variety of shapes, textures and flavors.

Throughout history, cheese has been an important part of the human diet, both as a dietary staple and a gourmet food.

In addition to being delicious, it is highly nutritious and very rich in several vitamins and minerals.

The color can be yellow, white and green, and the consistency can range from hard to soft, depending on the type.

Cheese is mainly composed of fat and protein, the proportions of which depend on the type of cheese.

The table below contains information on all the nutrients in cheese (1):

Nutrition Facts: Cheese, cheddar - 100 grams

Water37 %
Protein24 g
Carbs1.3 g
Sugar0.3 g
Fiber0 g
Fat33.8 g
Saturated19.37 g
Monounsaturated8.43 g
Polyunsaturated1.43 g
Omega-30.14 g
Omega-60.82 g
Trans fat1.18 g

Cheese is an excellent source of protein (1).

One thick slice of cheddar cheese (28 g) contains about 6.7 g of protein, which is similar to what you get from a glass of milk.

The majority of proteins in cheese belong to a family of milk proteins called casein.

Milk proteins are of excellent quality, rich in essential amino acids, and highly digestible.

Casein is the largest family of proteins in milk, the most abundant of which is alpha-casein.

It has some unique health effects and may promote lower blood pressure (2, 3) and increased absorption of minerals from the digestive tract (4).

Bottom Line: Cheese is a rich source of high-quality protein, mainly casein.

The fat content of cheese is highly variable, depending on the type of cheese.

It can range from 1% in cottage cheese (5) to 34% or higher in cream cheese (6).

Cheese fat is highly complex, containing hundreds of different fatty acids (7).

It is very high in saturated fat (70%), but also provides a fair amount of monounsaturated fat.

Bottom Line: The proportion of fat in cheese is highly variable, depending on the type. The fat is mainly saturated.

Ruminant Trans Fats

Cheese contains a family of trans fats called ruminant trans fats or dairy trans fats.

Unlike trans fats found in processed foods, ruminant trans fats are considered to have health benefits when consumed in reasonable amounts.

The most abundant ruminant trans fats are vaccenic acid and conjugated linoleic acid, commonly abbreviated as CLA (7).

CLA appears to have several health benefits (8, 9, 10) and may promote weight loss in overweight individuals (11).

However, large doses from CLA supplements may have harmful metabolic consequences (12, 13).

Bottom Line: A small proportion of cheese fat is so-called ruminant trans fat, which may have several health benefits.

The carbohydrate content of cheese is very variable, depending on the brand, type, and stage of maturation.

The major carbohydrate in milk is lactose (milk sugar). During cheese production, some of the lactose is broken down into glucose and galactose.

However, the extent of lactose breakdown depends on the type of cheese.

Lactose tends to be low in aged cheese, such as cheddar (1), but higher in fresh cheese, such as cream cheese (6) and cottage cheese.

Therefore, moderate consumption of well ripened cheese is usually well tolerated by those with lactose intolerance.

Bottom Line: Cheese contains small amounts of carbohydrates, mainly lactose. Certain types of cheese are not suitable for people who are lactose intolerant.

Cheese is a concentrated source of vitamins and minerals.

This is not surprising, given that an entire cup of milk is used to produce 1 slice of cheese.

  • Calcium: Cheese is among the richest dietary sources of calcium, which plays an essential role in bone health (14).
  • Vitamin B12: Also called cobalamin, vitamin B12 is important for the function of the nervous system (15).
  • Sodium: Added to cheese to increase shelf life and taste. Small amounts are naturally present in milk.
  • Phosphorus: An essential mineral widely available in foods, especially processed foods, and its intake is high in the Western diet (16).
  • Selenium: Cheese is a good source of selenium, a dietary mineral with several important functions in the body (17).
  • Zinc: An essential trace element that serves a diversity of functions (18).
  • Riboflavin: Also called vitamin B2. Cheese and other dairy products are the main dietary source of riboflavin in the Western diet (19).
  • Vitamin A: One of the most abundant vitamins in milk fat.
  • Vitamin K2: Cheese is often an excellent source of vitamin K2, also called menaquinone. Adequate intake of K2 is important in maintaining bone and heart health (20).
Bottom Line: Cheese is a rich source of many vitamins and minerals. These include calcium, zinc, riboflavin, vitamin A, and vitamin K2.

Moderate consumption of cheese appears to have several beneficial health effects.

Bone Health and Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a degenerative disease, characterized by reduced bone density and increased risk of fractures.

Consumption of dairy products, such as cheese, has long been recognized as an effective strategy against osteoporosis, especially among elderly women (21).

Heart Health

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in modern society.

Regular consumption of milk products appears to be beneficial for heart health (22, 23, 24), and may reduce the risk of hypertension (25, 26), which is one of the leading causes of heart disease.

Multiple nutritional factors are believed to be responsible for this effect.

This includes the unique combination of calcium, potassium and magnesium found in milk products (27, 28).

In addition, peptides formed by the digestion of casein, the main family of proteins in cheese, are believed to be partly responsible (2, 3).

In short, moderate consumption of cheese, as a part of a balanced diet, may protect against heart disease.

Bottom Line: As an excellent source of minerals, cheese may cut the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis.

Although cheese consumption is both healthy and safe, certain individuals may need to be careful with (or avoid) cheese.

Lactose Intolerance

Lactose, also called milk sugar, is the main carbohydrate found in milk products.

Some people are unable to fully digest lactose, a condition known as lactose intolerance, which is associated with gas, diarrhea and other adverse symptoms.

Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese and cream cheese, usually contains a fair amount of lactose, whereas well ripened, aged cheese contains very low amounts.

People with lactose intolerance can often eat aged cheese in moderate amounts without problems, but may need to avoid fresh types of cheese.

Bottom Line: As a source of milk sugar (lactose), certain types of cheese are not suitable for those with lactose intolerance.

Milk Allergy

Milk allergy is a rare condition, more common among children than adults (29).

The primary allergens in milk are proteins, whey and casein. Casein is the main type of protein in cheese, but it often contains trace amounts of whey.

Being a rich source of milk proteins, cheese should be avoided by those with milk allergy.

Bottom Line: Some people need to avoid all milk products because of allergies.

Cheese making is both art and science.

All cheese making starts with the coagulation of milk, forming so-called milk curds.

This is the process that separates milk into curds (solid components) and whey (liquid components).

Milk curds are mainly composed of casein protein and milk fat, with small amounts of water.

Milk coagulates when it comes into contact with acid, but this process can also be facilitated by adding enzymes.

The curds are then processed, heated, pressed, salted, drained of any remaining whey and cut into the desired shapes.

The last step is curing or ripening, which involves storing the cheese under specific conditions for a specified amount of time until it reaches maturation.

This process involves certain kinds of bacteria and fungi (molds).

Cheese is a highly popular food worldwide, produced in a variety of forms.

It is a rich source of high-quality protein, and may also be very high in fat.

In addition, it is an excellent source of several vitamins and minerals, especially calcium.

For this reason, it may cut the risk of both heart disease and osteoporosis when eaten in moderate amounts.

An evidence-based nutrition article from our experts at Authority Nutrition.

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