That cheese can be a dieter’s friend will come as a surprise to many. It has a reputation as a fatty, sodium-filled indulgence, and there’s no denying that it’s rich in both; just an ounce (about a slice) of cheddar cheese will run you 9 grams of fat and 180 mg of sodium. It’s also high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
For a long time, these stats made cheese an automatic nutritional no-no. “We used to assess whether a food is good or bad for your health simply by looking at a label and reading some of the basic information,” says Arne Astrup, head of the department of nutrition, exercise and sports at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. (Astrup has received accepted grants from dairy foundations and companies, yet says the research he conducts is “not biased due to industry influence.”) Recent research, from Astrup and others, is showing that the thousands of molecules that make up cheese are working in ways that make the food beneficial to health.
Some of these attributes are obvious but others less so. Here’s what new research pinpoints as some of the nutritional perks of cheese.
It’s high in protein, calcium and hard-to-get B12. Cheese contains almost as much protein as it does fat, which the body uses to build cell structures and stay full. It also contains plenty of bone-building calcium—200 mg per ounce in cheddar cheese, or about 20% of a person’s recommended daily amount—and is one of the few foods to naturally contain vitamin D. Cheese, too, has vitamin B12, which helps red blood cells form properly and neurological function.
It may help your heart. One such study (funded in part by a dairy group, which is typical with cheese research) finds that not only is cheese not bad for the heart, it may even be beneficial. A 2016 paper published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that eating a little more than an ounce of cheese daily was linked to about a 3% lower risk of stroke. A daily serving of cheese has also been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and eating cheese moderately has been found to predict a longer life. Cheese has even been shown to lower levels of bad LDL cholesterol compared to butter.
It doesn’t increase high blood pressure risk. What’s more, its high sodium content may not be so bad after all. Salty as it is, cheese wasn’t linked to hypertension in another analysis of studies. Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how this can be. “There’s a lot of magic in the food matrix of cheese, and the other components and ingredients in cheese are far more important than the saturated fat and sodium,” says Astrup. Calcium seems to play a protective role by binding some of the fatty acids in cheese so that they can’t be digested, he says.
It’s full of good bacteria. The bacteria in cheese—which is a fermented food—might also be beneficial. Some evidence suggests that eating cheese favorably changes the microbiota, the concentration of bugs in the gut, which in turn may be improving metabolism.
It contains a particularly great fatty acid. Gökhan Hotamisligil, professor of genetics and metabolism at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, believes that the reason cheese can be so high in nutritional baddies without having detrimental health effects is that nutrition categories are too broad. “The general view about fat is very crude,” he says. “We say fatty acids, but there are thousands of fatty acids, and they cannot all be conducting the same biology.” In 2008, Hotamisligil and his team were searching for the most unique lipids they could find when they stumbled upon palmitoleate. “It turns out that this is really a wonderful fatty acid,” he says. It’s generated by the body in small amounts, but it’s found most abundantly in full-fat dairy products—especially cheese. Palmitoleate neutralizes the damage caused by saturated fatty acids, acts like insulin by getting excess sugar out of the blood and is anti-inflammatory, Hotamisligil says. Together, these properties can help protect against excessive lipids and type-2 diabetes, he says.
This may help explain why full-fat dairy products, like cheese, haven’t been shown to be nutritional bogeymen. “From an evolutionary perspective, the survival of mammalians depended on drinking milk,” says Hotamisligil. The lipid palmitoleate might exist in order to counter the fattiness of milk so that it doesn’t cause harmful effects, he says.
A study in September found that when palmitoleate was fed to mice with extremely high cholesterol and a good chance of developing cardiovascular disease, it reduced inflammation and helped prevent heart disease.
More research is needed to unwrap the mysteries of cheese. But the good news for cheese-philes today is that eating it moderately seems to be just fine for most people. “Now I eat my cheese without feeling guilty,” says Hotamisligil—and so can you.